The right to clean air
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.