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Why Right To Clean Air And Water Should Be Made A Fundamental Right – OpEd

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Water has entered the turf of a verbal war between political parties serving the purposes of egotistic claims, rather the serving the people’s cause.

By Nilanjan Ghosh

India’s Supreme Court has come down heavily on governments on the issue of polluted water and air. In not so uncertain terms, it stated that governments must compensate citizens for the adverse impact of pollution in the scenario of failure to provide clean water and air.

Falling standards

While Delhi was reeling under severe pollution with air quality index (AQI) levels in certain corners crossing all bearable thresholds by multiple times, the photograph of the froth on the Yamuna channel which went viral across the press and social media bore ample testimony to the unbearable levels of pollution that the urban agglomeration is subjected to. Later, another dimension to Delhi’s pollution discourse has been added by the contesting claims of the AAP government and the Union minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan, who shared the findings of a study conducted by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), pointing at Delhi’s tap water being unfit for drinking and the worst in quality parameters among major Indian cities.

Let us first understand the test results.

The BIS tested water quality across 44 parameters that included organoleptic and physical parameters, undesirable substances in excessive amounts, toxic substances, bacteriological quality of drinking water, virological and biological parameters based on the standards set as per IS 10500:2012. Non-conformity to the standards was noticed across all the 11 locations from where the samples were obtained. Interestingly, as reported recently, of the 11 locations, two were from Paswan’s official residence in Janpath and Krishi Bhavan — both in Lutyens’ Delhi, where the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) supplies water and not the Delhi government’s Jal Board.

The concern lies elsewhere. Yet again, water has entered the turf of a verbal war between political parties serving the purposes of their egotistic claims, rather the serving the people’s cause. Refuting a scientific study does not help the cause! ‘Clean water and sanitation’ have been explicitly classified as a UN Sustainable Development Goal. Similarly, if citizens have the right to live a healthy life, clean air is definitely a human right! Governments must ensure that these critical life-support systems provided by nature are not impaired, but made congenial for human consumption: They are goods and services provided by the ecosystem free of cost!

Now, the critical question: What happens when governments fail to ensure provision of such critical services to citizens? The apex court has rightly acknowledged the duties and responsibilities of the government, and has come up with some very significant observations: “Right to life of human is being endangered” by the bad air quality and water pollution; state governments need to explain on “… why they should not be asked to compensate persons who are affected by bad air quality”; and, finally, “… the problem of governance should not come in the way in such matters.”

No substitute

That the apex court has come up with the question of compensation is crucial. However, it should be remembered that government compensation to affected people in India has generally been ad hoc and without any scientific basis. The fundamental economic principles that compensations should not only take care of the direct costs arrived from market prices, but also the cost of opportunity lost in the long run, simply do not figure in the compensation equations of the governments at any level in India.

As far as air or water pollution is concerned, the costs need to be assessed on the basis of the direct cost of hospitalisation, cost of installing an alternate purifier, costs of human-days and wage-loss, or even the costs of the disability or untimely death which are perceived from the losses in the longterm income streams till retirement. It should also be acknowledged that the cost of air and water pollution is borne by the economy and society

Basic rights

Compensation can make governments work and penalise them for not doing so. But it can also lead to the phenomenon that economists often call ‘income effects’ — Often when individuals are faced with a choice to change or replace their position (or preference) with another position (or preference), they choose to stick to their initial position. No amount of money is sufficient to induce them to change. In a world steadily getting affected by pollution to meet the ‘growth-fetishism’ of myopic economic and political leaders, ‘income effects’ are very important.

They remind us that basic life support amenities are not to be compromised with. Often, it has been proposed that polluting industries and sectors should pay and, probably, the moot idea of compensation to affected ones can be promoted by the government through this mode. But, this will not be a sustainable idea!

Essentially, the principle ‘polluters pay’ boils down to ‘payment for buying the right to pollute’. Environmental governance is, indeed, turning out to be a complex challenge, complicated further by the clashes between political parties. It is time that right to water and air be made a fundamental right that cannot be traded for or substituted with money or compensation, and governments should be made legally bound to enable these provisions.


This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.



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Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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