The right to clean air

Bangkok Post - - OPINION -

If the city’s air qual­ity over the past few years is any guide, the haze sea­son is fast ap­proach­ing, which usu­ally sets off a PM2.5 cri­sis. Haze sea­son is the out­come of a com­bi­na­tion of man-made en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion paired with the forces of na­ture. Dur­ing this sea­son, low air pres­sure from China causes air stag­na­tion, which leads to more air pol­lu­tion as par­ti­cles from fac­tory emis­sions and ve­hi­cle en­gine fumes hover in the at­mos­phere.

This haze has changed the way of life for Bangkok cit­i­zens. As the sea­son of mask wear­ing — around long be­fore Covid-19 — emerges, denizens cover up to pro­tect them­selves from PM2.5. In the past few years, state agen­cies have pre­pared pas­sive, short-term mea­sures such as wa­ter spray­ing or air fil­ter ma­chines to help al­le­vi­ate the prob­lem, but to lit­tle avail.

Yet there is some good news. Ear­lier this month, the Thai­land Clean Air Net­work, a civil rights group, launched a cam­paign for a bill called the Clear Air Reg­u­la­tory Bill, drafted by law pro­fes­sors. The bill was sub­mit­ted to House speaker Chuan Leek­pai on Sept 17.

This month, the group also launched a sig­na­ture cam­paign to back up the land­mark bill. The bill has 124 sec­tions that will lay down a frame­work for how au­thor­i­ties and lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion bod­ies can bet­ter reg­u­late and man­age air pol­lu­tion, ad­dress­ing the pit­falls of ex­ist­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal laws and mech­a­nisms.

Un­der the cur­rent le­gal and bu­reau­cratic ap­pa­ra­tus, pol­luters — fac­to­ries, farm­ers who set fire to farm waste or even pol­lut­ing ve­hi­cles — are of­ten let off the hook be­cause the Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Depart­ment (PCD) has no real power to pe­nalise the cul­prits.

Cur­rently, many state agen­cies are deal­ing with var­i­ous kinds of pol­lu­tion. The Min­istry of In­dus­try tack­les pol­lut­ing fac­to­ries while the Depart­ment of Land Trans­port un­der the Trans­port Min­istry is al­lowed to fine or even or­der ve­hi­cles off the road.

In re­al­ity, we hardly ever see the Depart­ment of In­dus­trial Works shut down pol­lut­ing fac­to­ries, nor do see the Depart­ment of Land Trans­port re­move cars from streets.

The 1992 En­vi­ron­men­tal Act is good, but not enough. Un­der this law, cit­i­zens can­not sue pol­luters for pol­lut­ing air that makes peo­ple ill. The law au­tho­rises state agen­cies to sue air pol­luters. So, there is not much peo­ple can do if state agen­cies don’t do their work. But this new bill will be a game changer.

The first chap­ter of the bill clearly de­fines clean air and makes ac­cess to it a ba­sic right. Mak­ing clean air a ba­sic right will al­low cit­i­zens to sue air pol­luters.

The bill will give lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions the right to man­age and deal with air pol­lu­tion in­stead of wait­ing for or­ders that may never come from cen­tral govern­ment.

It calls for a reg­u­la­tory body to over­see and make sure state agen­cies and min­istries work to com­bat pol­lu­tion.

Meanwhile, a clean air fund will be es­tab­lished to sup­port ac­tiv­i­ties such as cov­er­age of ex­pen­di­ture to file cases with courts, fund re­search and devel­op­ment, and other lo­cal ac­tiv­i­ties to pro­mote clean air. More im­por­tantly, the bill also touches on trans­bound­ary air pol­lu­tion and has a penalty clause.

The real chal­lenge is how quickly this bill will be passed. It is re­ported that House Speaker Chuan Leek­pai said the bill will be put into the law de­lib­er­at­ing pipe­line. Yet the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion might cause a de­lay. As of now, the House seems fo­cused on the char­ter re­write.

But does the House have to wait? A right to clean air is the most im­por­tant of all rights, some­thing we all de­serve and can­not live with­out.

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