26 MARCH 2016
Hasty cure for a familiar malady
The imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand on the eve of a vote to test the majority of the Harish Rawat government is yet another instance of a highly questionable resort to a constitutional remedy that was envisaged for extraordinary circumstances. The action is bad in law as much as it pre-empted a floor test, which the landmark Bommai judgment held as the right means to establish a government’s majority. The question of course is how one deals with situations when there are indications that the integrity of the floor test is or will be vitiated through abrupt and wholesale disqualifications. In this respect, the sequence of events in Uttarakhand bears an uncanny resemblance to the developments that led to the recent dismissal of the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh, which was followed by the installation of a BJP-backed government there. The common features are a Congress Chief Minister losing the support of a section of his legislature party, and the opposition BJP making common cause with the dissidents to unseat the incumbent. In both cases, the Chief Ministers decided to risk a face-off in the Assembly, but only after taking the ‘precaution’ of getting the rebel legislators disqualified for defection. On its part, in both States the BJP showed little compunction in openly supporting rebellion in another party.
It was believed that the Bommai judgment of 1994, which sharply circumscribed the Centre’s power to dismiss a State government, would put an end to this abhorrent practice. Apart from demanding a floor test to ascertain a government’s majority, the Supreme Court held that the Assembly could not be dissolved immediately, but only kept under suspended animation until both Houses of Parliament approved President’s Rule. But we have a recent history that demonstrates that such norms can be cynically exploited by political parties. While the ruling party in a State can selectively disqualify legislators ahead of the vote, the prevailing political dispensation at the Centre has the option of placing the Assembly under suspension until it cobbles together an alternative regime. The Supreme Court is hearing a case on the constitutional validity of the imposition of President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh, though the questions being addressed there are not germane in their entirety to what has transpired in Uttarakhand. In the latter case, while it is highly doubtful that there was a breakdown of the constitutional machinery as the Centre claims, what is required is some judicial clarity on the limits, if any, of a Speaker’s power to alter the composition of the House in the run-up to a floor test. It is unlikely that a complete breakdown of political morality can be set right by law alone. But even so, there is an urgent need to evolve a further set of norms that inhibit the blatant misuse of Article 356 on the one hand and the cynical use of a Speaker’s power to sustain a sinking regime on the other.
Pay consumers to take back e-waste
The new rules proposed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to manage electronic waste must be implemented with firm political will to close the gap between growing volumes of hazardous trash and inadequate recycling infrastructure. India generates about eight lakh tonnes of e-waste annually, while 151 registered recycling facilities can handle only half of that quantum. There are no systematic studies on India’s waste generation, a problem that is probably much bigger than commonly believed. Producers and consumers of electronic goods have a responsibility under the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011 to ensure proper disposal, but progress has been slow for various reasons. Now the E-waste (Management) Rules 2016 provide several options to manufacturers — such as collection of a refundable deposit and paying for the return of goods — to meet the requirements of law. Consumers are naturally keen on recovering economic value from waste, creating a thriving informal recycling sector. These units use crude methods such as open burning to extract copper, lead, aluminium and iron. Studies done at informal recyclers near New Delhi show that concentrated acids are used in an open-air environment to remove copper from printed circuit boards; the corrosive chemicals are then discharged into surrounding lands. Several cities are similarly polluted. This is an unsustainable course, especially at a time when rapid obsolescence of electronic goods is the norm. The Environment Ministry must work closely with the States to implement the tighter rules.
In spite of its growing environmental footprint, sound management of electronic waste has received low priority. Urban solid waste management policy has focussed on cleaning streets and transferring garbage to landfills, ignoring the legal obligation to segregate and recycle. Hazardous materials, including heavy metals, are dumped in garbage yards, polluting soil and water. The new rules have positive measures in this regard: they classify mercury-laden light bulbs as e-waste, which will keep them out of municipal landfills. Bulk consumers have to file annual returns, another welcome move. An awareness campaign on e-waste will make it easier to implement the rules. Often, consumers do not let go of defunct gadgets. One U.S. study showed that on average a household keeps four small and two large e-waste articles in basements and attics. Several Indian households also stock e-waste items. The success of the new rules will depend on incentivising such consumers to enter the formal recycling channel using the producer-operated buy-back scheme. They will come on board when the repurchase offer is better than that of the unorganised sector and a collection mechanism is available. The Centre and the States have a responsibility to ensure that producers contribute to the e-waste management system, which has been designed with their inputs. The collection targets, that will touch 70 per cent in seven years, are realistic. A healthy environment demands that the targets get more ambitious.