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Right to Clean Environment

Report of second webinar

ESG Webinar Series on Tackling Air Pollution

6th April, 2023

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Why this Webinar Series:

Bengaluru is one of the most polluted cities in India. The air quality in the city has deteriorated drastically over the years due to poor public transport facilities, widespread waste burning, massive construction activities in and around the metropolis, and an alarming increase in the number of private transport vehicles. The increasing pollution and deteriorating air quality has immediate consequences on public health: in the form of increased incidences of respiratory allergies and infections, chronic complex respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and various other health complications. What is shocking is that such health problems which were earlier observed mostly in older people or those exposed to highly polluted environments are increasingly manifesting in the youth, even children.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board has formulated the Revised Action Plan for Control of Air Pollution in Bengaluru City, a 44-point agenda that casts on various government agencies the responsibility of instituting effective response measures to tackle air pollution. However, the Action Plan fails comprehensively misses to include health needs of the poor and working class as a priority, particularly given that they are the most vulnerable to suffer impacts of air pollution, and who also constitute about half of the 14 million metropolitan population.

All this gives rise to several questions about the nature, effects and solutions to the air pollution crisis. What steps are needed to tackle air pollution, at a personal level, at the community level and at larger scales.

The first webinar in ESG’s Webinar Series on Tackling Air Pollution focusing on “Science, Public Health and Governance”, held on International Women’s Day, 8th March, 2023, witnessed an engaged discussion on how air pollution manifests across socio-economic disparities, particularly worsening the health of the most vulnerable and marginalised.  Challenges in monitoring air pollution were highlighted and Governmental responses in tackling air pollution interrogated. 

In light of the serious, and irreversible, health and environmental impacts of air pollution, and in light of the July 2022 United Nations Declaration on the Right to a Clean Environment as a Human Right, the second webinar held on 6th April 2023 focused on the Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment. The following is a report.


Introduction to Webinar on the Right to Clean Environment

The panel for the session (Left to Right): Bhargavi S.Rao (Moderator), Leo F. Saldanha (Trustee, Environment Support Group), Dr. Sarath Guttikunda (Founder/Director, Urban Emissions),  Chee Yoke Ling (Executive Director, Third World Network), David Boyd (UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment), and Randeep D (Commissioner, Health & Family Welfare)

On 28th July, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly passed a historic resolution recognising the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The basic idea was to affirm that without this right, none of the other basic human rights can be realised. This new right includes within it the right to clean air, water and a stable climate.

In light of this unprecedented development, the second webinar in ESG’s Webinar Series on Air Pollution explored the multiple facets of the right to a clean environment and with a special focus on how Indian jurisprudence has acknowledged this right. The webinar assayed steps taken by different countries to respond to air pollution, the kind of provisions required to tackle air pollution in India, and whether India will now acknowledge this human right in its action plans to tackle air pollution.

Bhargavi S Rao says, “A study revealed that about less than 8% of the hearings were on urban air pollution at the NGT in India.”

Bhargavi S Rao, Senior Fellow and Trustee of ESG, introduced the session and highlighted that in addition to the UN’s declaration of the right to a clean environment being a human right, even the Indian Constitution recognizes the right as a fundamental right under Article 21. Despite this, she explained, an assessment of the trends in air pollution in the context of Indian jurisprudence revealed that only less than 8% of the hearings before the National Green Tribunal were about urban air pollution – thus indicating the very low priority air pollution and its consequences receives in public and civil action, and judicial oversight.   Thus, setting the tone for the discussion, she welcomed all panellists.

Building on this introduction, Leo F. Saldanha, Coordinator and Trustee of ESG, highlighted how while India is quick to legislate and adopt international treaties, the worsening state of environment in India indicates the massive gap between legal intent and the ineffectiveness in the implementation of  laws through regulatory praxis. The infrastructure and institutional mechanism necessary to be effective in action is in place. But, the weak budgetary allocation made for environmental governance in India is demonstrative of the lack of political will to address environmental pollution and is also disallowing effective action, explained Leo.

Leo F. Saldanha says, “The the budgetary allocation to these (institutions) are so marginal that it reveals the fact that our rhetoric does not also translate into real action through budgetary support.”

This situation persists despite the Indian judiciary having proactively integrated the Right to Clean Environment as part of the Fundamental Right to Life. However, such assertion of a right has not necessarily translated into judicial action taking punitive action against polluters. For instance, in the Bhopal Gas Leak case, despite several warnings, no meaningful response was taken by regulatory agencies to avoid the disaster, which constitutes a serious crime considering the calamitous consequences.  To this day victims of the disaster suffer. Yet, the Supreme Court of India recently closed any chance of victims securing support beyond the initial settlement made, which is widely considered a pittance.  And no one has gone to jail despite thousands being killed, and hundreds of thousands more suffering the consequences of the world’s greatest industrial disaster.  It is only recently that there has been some effort from the National Green Tribunal severely penalising polluters, though effectively tackling pollution through criminal prosecution is rarely given effect to, Leo explained.


Statistics on Air Quality

Dr. Sarath Guttikunda says, “As of the end of last month, there are 440 continuous monitoring stations operational in India… Ideally speaking, we really need about 4094 based on CPCB’s own thumb rules.”

Dr. Sarath Guttikunda, Founder/Director of Urban Emissions, provided shocking statistics on the extent of air pollution in India. He looked at the problem from two perspectives – i.e. Monitoring and Modelling. While the measurement of Particulate Matter (PM) is the most important, not all cities measure it. He pointed out the lack of effective monitoring, for there are only 440 continuous monitoring stations and 880 manual stations, compared to the requirement of 4094. The modelling aspect takes up more significance due to the lacunae in measurement tools, and it shows the massive deterioration of air quality. For instance, while looking at data from 1998 – 2020, it can be seen that the southern cities were much better off due to the sea and land breeze, but now even that has not mitigated the effects of pollution.

Dr. Guttikunda went on to add that most action plans, talks, and awareness drives focus mainly on vehicular emissions, if it is not agricultural residue burning (which, in any case, happens for about 2 weeks in the year). Or the impact of fireworks during Diwali. In the National Clean Air Program, for New Delhi, for instance, 40% of the budget is allocated towards transport related emissions, while only 2% of the budget is apportioned for household pollutants which make up to 30% of the pollution share.

Infographic showing the contributors of air pollution in New Delhi

If there are any interventions, it has been mainly through the judiciary, and this has not been very helpful. He stressed on the need for scientists, regulatory institutions and Ministries taking proactive steps to tackle this grave crisis with all the seriousness necessary.

Infographic showing the Action Plan for New Delhi under the National Clean Air Programme

Gaps in Tackling Air Pollution

Randeep D., IAS, says, “There is an acute need to bring out the shock factors which is of paramount importance to move public sentiment and action”.

Randeep D., IAS, Commissioner of Health & Family Welfare, Government of Karnataka, focused on gaps in addressing the problem of air pollution. Although, he suggested, there are gaps in the policies, there is also a lack of effective implementation of available provisions which is also due to the necessary levels of understanding of air pollution as a problem that directly affects health. Consequently, most people do not treat air pollution with the urgency and seriousness that it deserves.

As an administrator, he reported on his first-hand experiences of the suffering it brings about, such as myriad upper respiratory tract illnesses, prevalence of lung carcinoma and even several young children being affected by wheezing and asthma. All this should serve as an eye opener of an impending catastrophe, he alerted.

In the context of Urban India, he wondered if prevailing “development can be environmentally friendly” at all. He echoed Leo’s concerns over how weak adherence of available legal frameworks is worsening the situation. Besides, he highlighted how weak attention to necessary infrastructure in peri-urban areas results in acute dependence on private travel modes and massive contribution of dust, compounded by weak regulation is adding to the prevailing problem. In that sense he wondered if public transportation projects like metro can keep pace with the rapidly growing cities and their needs, when even last-mile connectivity is such a major  issue today. He imagined the possibility that India may have to move towards strong-State action, as in a cap on the number of privately owned vehicles in Singapore, in order to tackle air pollution in major cities.

According to Randeep, there is a need for source apportionment and identification of the type of pollutants in developing effective responses to tackle the problem, which, he said, is clearly absent today. Stressing on the need to make enforcement mechanisms more robust, he said there is also a critical need to self-regulate. All of which needs intersectoral coordination as it is the only way in which a mammoth body like the government can function efficiently. As a public health administrator, he invited the public to hold officers and authorities accountable by ensuring goals stated action plans are achieved.

Why the UN Right to Clean Environment

David Boyd says, “There was a vote on whether the UN should recognize the Right to Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment. 43 countries voted in favour of the resolution. 4 countries abstained, which included India.”

Dr. David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment and Professor of Law, University of British Columbia, brought to light that while India is indeed a signatory to most international treaties, in 2021 when the UN Human Rights Council put to vote the recognition of the right to healthy and clean environment, India was one of the 4 countries that abstained from voting. Internationally India has been against the international recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as part of the Human Rights Declaration, he asserted.

Dr. Boyd then went on to explain how the right to a clean and healthy environment has both procedural and substantive elements. The procedural elements being access to information, the public’s right to participate in environmental decision making, and access to justice with effective remedies. The substantive elements are the right to breathe clean air, access to safe and sufficient water, access to healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environment to live, work, learn and play, healthy ecosystem and biodiversity, and a safe liveable climate. He also enumerated 7 steps that he believes are necessary to protect humans from air pollution –

  • monitor air quality and the effects of air pollution on human health
  • assess the sources of air pollution to make policies that target these sources
  • engage and inform the public of the air quality on a daily basis and in public education
  • enact legislations with standards based on science and international guidance from organisations like WHO and UNEP
  • make action plans at the national regional and local levels that articulate specific actions and measures to be taken to improve air quality
  • implement actions and enforce air quality standards
  • evaluate the progress of actions. And if it is not adequate, institute additional measures and actions to be taken

David Boyd went on to explain how air pollution is preventable with strong laws and implementation. He also believes that putting a face to the issue at hand will go a long way in achieving positive results, as was done in the UK which resulted in Ella’s law.

Working together – Integrating Issues and Stakeholders

Chee Yoke Ling says, “We need to bring the right to clean air, right to healthy food, right to safe soil to plant healthy food into everyday lives of humans.”

Chee Yoke Ling, Executive Director, Third World Network, highlighted the importance of different actors working together. She mentioned that civil society places international customary law in high regard, and spoke of the need to integrate international and national players. The right to clean air, she explained, is intricately linked to other rights such as the right to food, soil, water, etc., and such linkages should be made clear. She suggested that the Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations working on different issues should work together, as many of the issues are linked. Domestic civil society groups would also deeply benefit from the assistance and interventions of the special rapporteurs working in consonance with them and local governments.

She provided deeper insights into how developed countries are denying their historical responsibility when it comes to their contribution to the triple planetary crisis, and that this has been ongoing at the United Nations for over 4 decades. Some reasons she provided for such sidestepping of environmental resolutions were the increased activism and action it would potentially provoke domestically, if the nation makes its stance clear on the international arena.

Acknowledging the fact that power structures have a lot to do with the present crisis, Yoke Ling alluded to the need for a legally binding instrument that would hold corporations accountable and liable at a cross-border level, as currently, powerful corporations and their lobbies heavily influence decisions leading to environmental degradation. She highlighted the need to bring back the integrity of environmental principles like the polluter pays principle, and said that this principle, for example, does not mean that once the polluter pays, they can continue to pollute. She ended on the note that there should not be a disaggregated and disproportionate impact on the poor; and equity and social justice should be taken into account. To effect change, she believes that citizens need to strengthen their public response.


In response to a question on what one can do with the daily AQI details published in newspapers, Dr. Sarath Guttikunda explained that while the data is not fully representative, it must be used for health and pollution alert systems to enable appropriate decision making and quick responses. However, he added that in India there is still a need for better data management systems. The lack of environmental education was also discussed where David Boyd highlighted the fundamental importance of education and the need to ensure environmental education at all levels, so everyone understands the problems, the solutions and the urgency for action.

The issue of the contribution of tobacco worsening the public health situation already compromised by air pollution was raised by Vasant Kumar Mysoremath, a participant. To which Dr. Sarath Guttikunda shared an anecdote. He narrated how when the air quality monitoring systems were being set up in one city, it was observed that everyday at exactly 10:30 am the pollution level would spike up incredibly. Upon investigation, it was found that everyday a guard would stand near the inlet of the air pollution monitoring system and smoke a cigarette, thus causing the spike.  In that sense he highlighted how though tobacco smoking contributes no significant burden to global air pollution, it is in fact a serious impediment to building public health, as is compromises the respiratory tract which is then more vulnerable to air pollution impacts. Chee Yoke Ling added that in Malaysia efforts to ban smoking and vaping are being termed by the tobacco lobby as draconian laws for giving too much power to the police to conduct raids while enforcing the ban. In effect arguing that the industry is all too powerful a lobby and finds innovative ways to sustain their high profits despite widespread impact on health.

The session  concluded with Leo Saldanha highlighting how there are constant efforts to decriminalise offences against the environment and make available only civil remedies as the way forward.  Given how the threat of civil action insufficiently deter polluters, as can be seen in the failure to improve air quality despite polluters paying fines imposed by the National Green Tribunal, he asserted that “the fear of jail is the beginning of securing clean air.”

Speaker Profiles

Dr. Sarath Guttikunda is the recipient of the International Award from the American Geophysical Union for his work on making the cause of air pollution more understandable. He’s only the second person from India to receive this award. He’s a chemical engineer and atmospheric scientist at TED Fellow and founder of Urban Emissions, India. He was a member of India’s AQI Formulation Committee in 2014, and WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines Development Group 2016 – 20. He has a PhD in chemical engineering and environmental policy from the University of Iowa and a BTech in chemical engineering from IIT Kharagpur.

David Boyd was appointed as a UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment for a three-year term commencing 1st August, 2018. He is an associate professor of law, policy and sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Mr. Boyd has a PhD in resource management and environmental studies from UBC, a law degree from the University of Toronto and a business degree from the University of Alberta. He has served as the executive director of eco justice, appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada and worked as a Special Advisor on sustainability for the Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. He has also advised many governments on environmental Constitutional and Human Rights Policy and co-chaired Vancouver’s effort to become the world’s greenest city by 2020. He’s a member of the World Commission on Environmental Law, an expert advisor for the United Nation’s harmony with nature initiative and a member of elaw, the environmental law alliance worldwide. Mr. Boyd has also authored nine books and over 100 reports and articles on environmental law and policy, human rights and constitutional law.

Randeep D is an engineer who holds a master’s degree in art. He’s from the IAS batch of 2006. His major achievements have been in the areas of developing sustainable cities with tech-based interventions in the health sector for patient tracking and bed facilities, particularly during the COVID pandemic. His efforts in ensuring the efficient use of online reference systems, cadaveric transplant and other government schemes have been remarkable and he has been one of the most accessible officers during the COVID times.

Chee Yoke Ling is the executive director of Third World Network, an international nonprofit policy research and advocacy organisation with a secretariat in Malaysia. She works on sustainable development issues with a focus on social justice and equity issues and the effects of globalisation on developing countries. She has engaged actively with civil society groups and developing country government policy makers in the evolution of sustainable development. She is also on the board of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific and the Executive Committee of the Sahabat Alam Malaysia, the Friends of the Earth Malaysia.

Leo F. Saldanha is full-time Coordinator and also Trustee of ESG. He has gained wide-ranging experience in the areas of Environmental Law and Policy, Decentralisation, Urban Planning and a variety of Human Rights and Development related issues, working across many sectors for over a decade. He is a keen campaigner on critical environmental and social justice issues and has guided several campaigns demanding evolution of progressive laws and effective action.

Bhargavi S. Rao graduated in Environmental Science and is a Botanist with an M Phil degree in Aerobiology from Bangalore University. She also  has a post graduate diploma   in Journalism. Her interest in Environmental and Social justice issues brought her to Environment Support Group (ESG), where she has led a wide variety of research and educational projects and campaign initiatives. She coordinated educational and training programmes at ESG with a focus on enhancing awareness and critical engagement in social and environmental justice issues.

This report was prepared by Nidhi Hanji and Sachin P.S. of ESG, and Theerthana who interned with the organisation.

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