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Fighting Corruption & Pollution: Meet the IAS Officer Leading Delhi’s Fight With Toxic Air!

A shrewd administrator with a penchant for going after the corrupt, Bhure Lal served in the Indian Army for seven years and saw action during the 1965 Indo-Pak war!

For the citizens of Delhi, breathing is getting harder by the day with the air quality hitting “severe” levels yesterday. Bhure Lal, a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and chairman of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), a statutory agency, has also sounded the alarm bells for the residents of the capital city.

In conversations with the media, Lal has warned that if the air quality touches emergency levels, then restrictions on the use of private vehicles is an inevitability under its graded action plan (GAP). His position on controlling air pollution in the national capital reflects a long-standing demand of environmental experts—improve the state of public transport and regularise parking facilities.

With a reputation for taking tough decisions without bothering too much about criticism from vested interests both inside and outside government, Lal has tirelessly worked over two decades as the chairman of the EPCA.

Spearheading the campaign for the introduction of compressed natural gas (CNG) as a cleaner fuel option in 2002 vis-a-vis diesel for public transport, despite staunch lobbying from the automobile industry and auto drivers’ union against this initiative, it remains one his enduring achievements.

Since then, however, it’s been a struggle with successive governments in Delhi and at the Centre, not doing enough to improve the state of public transport with the sole exception of the Delhi Metro. Instead, they have encouraged further use of private vehicles.

“Whether state governments procure additional public transport from adjoining states or request buses from schools, the emphasis should be on public transport. Metro frequency and number of coaches have to be enhanced,” said Lal, in a conversation with the Mint.

After road dust (35%), vehicular pollution is the second largest contributor to air pollution, accounting for an average of 25% PM 2.5 levels rising to 36% during the winters.

“Trucks and two-wheelers account for larger chunks of PM 2.5 pollution than passenger cars’ contribution of 14-15% of overall vehicle emissions,” says this Economic Times report.

Last June, the city crossed the one crore mark in the number of registered vehicles operating in the city. These are mind-boggling numbers, and little surprise that Lal has decided to regulate private vehicle use and improve public transport, particularly last-mile connectivity.

Despite his struggles in containing the dangers of air pollution in the national capital, Bhure Lal remains as determined as ever to ensure change is around the corner. He did it once with the introduction of CNG, and in these tough times, he is looking to make further inroads.

Born into a lower-middle-class family in Delhi, Lal obtained his doctorate in economics before enlisting himself as a commissioned officer in the Indian Army sometime in 1963. He saw action during the 1965 India-Pakistan War in the Sialkot sector, rising to the rank of captain before writing the famed UPSC exam in 1970. Upon clearing the exam, he was allotted the Uttar Pradesh cadre.

His tenure as an IAS officer is one marked by taking on powerful vested interests inside and outside government, which often resulted in regular transfers from one posting to another.

Bhure Lal standing second to the left. (Source: Facebook/SIAM India)
EPCA Chairman Bhure Lal standing second to the left. (Source: Facebook/SIAM India)

“As sub-divisional magistrate of Bahraich (UP), he raided over 100 traders in edible oils. As joint director (industries) at Meerut, he began penalising over 50 industrialists for misusing raw materials meant for small-scale units. And, as district magistrate of Varanasi, he went after the local coal mafia. Each time he was served with premature transfer orders—once at midnight,” says this 1987 India Today profile.

His fortunes began to change when VP Singh became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1980, and he was promoted to the office of secretary to the CM.

“Bhure Lal is one of the finest, most honest and most dependable officers I have worked with,” said VP Singh. During his stint as secretary to the CM, Lal led efforts to crack down hard on dacoity, a severe problem in the rural districts of south-west UP.

However, he truly made a mark during his stint in the Enforcement Directorate, where under then Union Finance Minister VP Singh, he went after very high-profile businessmen and celebrities accused of evading taxes and indulging in violations of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA), recovering Rs 25 crore from 11,000 cases.

It’s a record that some believe is unimpressive, while others argue that his actions planted fear in the minds of businessmen and celebrities against breaking the law. VP Singh, unfortunately, was forced out of the cabinet by the then ruling Congress party for his ministry’s actions against these prominent businessmen.

Bhure Lal (Source: Facebook/Genesis Global School)
EPCA Chairman Bhure Lal (Source: Facebook/Genesis Global School)

Most famously, though, he was leading the investigations in the infamous 1986 Bofors gun scam, for which he faced incredible resistance while going after those accused. Such was the force of his investigation that the government of the day decided to conduct a CBI probe against him. From the one questioning the accused, he was now being probed by the CBI for ‘destabilising the government of India in collusion with the CIA,’ a charge that fell apart after his acquittal.

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“There were times when I felt disturbed when those that I had been after for fraud or corruption retaliated in desperation. I fought them all with pleasure,” he told Mail Today in 2012.

The same spirit permeates his fight against air pollution in the national capital as well. Despite the dire situation on the ground, there is little doubt that Lal will persevere despite the odds.

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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