This article is written by Jeffy Johnson, from School of Law, Christ (Deemed to be University). This is an exhaustive article on the role of MC Mehta in shaping environmental law.
Mahesh Chandra Mehta is known for his single-handed victory in numerous landmark judgments including M.C. Mehta v. Union of India – Ganga Pollution Case  4 SCC 463 from India’s Supreme Court since 1984, including the introduction of lead-free gasoline to India and reducing the economic pollution fouling the Ganges and eroding the Taj Mahal. In early 1984, M.C. Mehta, a public interest attorney, witnessed the unfortunate condition of the country’s most iconic monument in his first visit. The famed Taj Mahal’s marble had turned yellow and was pitted as a result of pollutants from nearby industries. This spurred Mehta to file his first environmental case within the Supreme Court of India. The next year, Mehta learned that the Ganges, considered to be the holiest river in India and employed by many people a day for bathing and beverage, caught fire to industrial effluents within the river. Again, Mehta filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the polluting factories, and therefore the scope of the case was broadened to incorporate all the industries and municipalities within the basin.
In 1993, after a decade of court battles and threats from factory owners, the Supreme Court ordered 212 small factories surrounding the Taj Mahal to shut because they had not installed pollution control devices. Another 300 factories were placed on notice to try an equivalent. The Ganges cases continued to be heard hebdomadally, and 5,000 factories along the river were directed to put in pollution control devices and 300 factories were closed. Approximately 250 towns and cities within the Ganges Basin were ordered to line up sewage treatment plants. Mehta has won additional precedent-setting suits against industries that generate hazardous waste and succeeded in obtaining a writ to form lead-free gasoline available. He has also been working to ban intensive shrimp farming and other damaging activities along India’s 7,000-kilometer coast. His cases were crucial in the formulation of certain new principles and doctrines for the cover of the environment which is a remarkable achievement of the Indian Judiciary.
Principles evolved with the MC Mehta cases
Principle of absolute liability
The Supreme court of India formulated the Doctrine of Absolute Liability for harm caused by hazardous and inherently dangerous industries by interpreting the scope of the facility under Article 32 of the Constitution of India to issue directions and orders in appropriate proceedings. Absolute liability widened the scope of strict liability rule of the common law principle of England as it doesn’t provide for any such exceptions in the strict liability rule. This rule was evolved within the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India which is popularly referred to as the ‘oleum gas leak case’. The gas leak occurred on December 4th 1985. By a strange coincidence, M C Mehta had filed a litigation one month before the gas leak against the chlorine plant and the case was scheduled for December 4. When the hearing came up Mehta referred to the Oleum gas leak that happened just 3 hours earlier. The court took up the case immediately and delivered a quick decision. This particular case was so keenly watched as it occurred in the aftermath of the devastating Bhopal gas tragedy. This judgment was viewed as the response of the judiciary in such a catastrophe that severely affected the public in large. The court introduced the doctrine of absolute liability as an optimal measure.
Polluter pays principle
The Supreme court reiterated that ‘Polluter pays principle’ and re-emphasized the need to use it in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Taj Trapezium Case), a case concerning the decaying of the Taj Mahal. The Supreme court has also applied the same principle in M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath where Span Motel’s project encroached into the natural flow of the river Beas. Hence, the motel was directed to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the world by applying the above principle.
Public trust doctrine
The Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta v. Kamalnath observed, “Our system based on English common law includes the general public trust doctrine as a part of its jurisprudence. The state is the trustees of all-natural resources, which are naturally meant for public use and delight. The general public at large is that the beneficiary of the sea-shore, running waters, airs, forests and ecologically fragile lands”. The state as a trustee is under a duty to guard the natural resources and these resources meant for public use can’t be converted into private ownership.
PILs and MC Mehta Case
The emergence of PILs (Public Interest Litigations) in the 1980s has a coincidental synchronization with M C Mehta cases. Introduction of PILs was regarded as a crucial point in the judiciary. Its beginning can be linked to the reformist and activist judges P. N. Bhagwati and V R Krishna Iyer who started creative interpretation of the law to permit even indirectly aggrieved to file a petition on behalf of less privileged. The PILs stand to remove the need for ‘locus standi’ in a case that affects the larger public. M.C. Mehta also started his career in the 80s and the advent of PILs coincided with his environmental protection petitions. The PILs allowed him to venture into the macro-environmental issues prevailing in the country at the time. Some could also argue that there isn’t anyone that effectively utilized the PILs as M.C. Mehta. That doesn’t indicate that PILs made those enviro-legal cases effortless. The PILs are also entangled in the interminable legal delays and inability of courts to administer entire actions of the bureaucracy. Like other cases stalled in overworked courts, PIL cases also remain pending in courts. The Bichhri case is a classic example but M C Mehta could tackle those difficulties and come out victorious. In nutshell, the PILs were a scheme for Mehta to widen the scope of his enviro-legal battle in the country.
Inconsistency in justice delivery system
The Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action Vs Union of India and others (Bichhri case) taken up by MC Mehta, is a case of severe pollution of groundwater within the hamlet. The seepage from hamlet polluted the 60 wells which contained freshwater The sludge from Silver Chemicals the H-Acid factory caused this destruction. All the villagers’ of that area used this freshwater for the various purposes in their field. Due to the seepage, the complete water was contaminated and became unfit for consumption. The constant requirement for freshwater and in order to provide clean and healthy water to the village an immediate action was to be taken at the earliest. It was the need of the hour in that area and to ensure freshwater consumption as it is an everyday necessity. Although the apex court passed orders to take action quickly still there was the presence of harmful and poisonous sludge content in the groundwater. After looking into the crisis the Ministry of environment and forest (MEF) instructed and held the industry liable to remove the sludge from the groundwater. This was by applying the polluter pay principle into the situation. This case is a very clear example of uncooperative bureaucratic machinery. Due to the delay caused in taking action that is, in this case, the removal of sludge has caused great damage to the environment it can be said as no justice delivered at all in the Bichhri case. The damages done to the environment is irreversible and grave.
In the case of Managing Director, Karnataka vs Workmen Of Karnataka Pulpwood a petition was filed by Samaj Parivartana Samudaya which questioned the ratio of the judgment delivered by the Karnataka Court as the Karnataka State Government had the authority of the Karnataka Pulpwood Limited (KPL). But the court took a stand that it will not give more land to the corporation rather it will be under the supervision and authority of the government. This was done keeping in mind the environmental concerns which will be caused if it handed over to unscrupulous corporate industries. In the Bharatlal v. State Of Rajasthan & Others (Sariska case) is a classic example as the case highlights the harmfulness of mining activities in sanctuaries, villages and forestal areas as the said areas are the abode to rich flora and fauna. Its mining activities are held it will cause an imbalance in biodiversity and also affect the environment. A commission was instituted to look into such components and make a proper enquiry regarding the same and also make recommendations.
The courts cannot be held completely responsible for such inconsistencies in the justice delivery mechanism. It is the political condition of a country like India that has to lead to just overlapping and injustice not only in the environment but also in general as justice is always denied to the poor. Mehta says, “Courts are a function of the society within which they work.” There is a need for creating awareness as the rights are not known and the corporates shadow them. There should be a proper redressal means and also campaigns highlighting the environmental concerns that are faced. It is the duty of all to protect and safeguard the environment; it should be the mantra in everyone’s mind. The courts should not be the puppet in the hands of politicians and corporates. It should function with transparency and accountability. MC Mehta has played a very vital role in shaping the environmental justice system in its eternity. It is his persistent effort that has led to the growth of interest and accountability in environmental matters. He was a man of zeal and fought in the courts for numerous cases to ensure that authorities and their responsibilities did not ignore environmental rights to safeguard them.
The right to a clean and healthy environment isn’t a recent invention of the upper judiciary in India. This right has been recognized by the system and the judiciary for over a century approximately. The difference within the enjoyment of a clean and healthy environment today is that it attained the status of the fundamental right whose violation is prohibited by the Judiciary and constitution. The call for environmental protection can be traced back to eternity. With the radical development of science and technology and with the ever-increasing world population, the human environment has undergone tremendous changes. The Indian judiciary has shown considerable enthusiasm within the past in relaxing the rigour of locus standi, and evolving strategies to compel decision-making agencies to think about environmental criteria.
M.C. Mehta has played a crucial role in the initiation of new environmental policies and brought environmental protection into India’s constitutional framework. He was a frontrunner in green causes when it wasn’t even considered fashionable. He battled as a lone wolf against enormous entities and industries shaping the future of India’s environmental laws. His efforts are recognised internationally and the Magsaysay award is a pure manifestation of it. The impact of his actions are deeply rooted in the current period and it will be relevant for the future as well. The very recent demolition of apartments in Mardau in Kerala can be linked to the petition filed by M.C. Mehta. It is similar to his well-known case Indian Council For Enviro-Legal Action in the Supreme Court against the Government of India. This has resulted in the landmark 1996 judgment that directed the formation of the Coastal Zone Management Authority. It indicates that the future developments concerning the environment in India will be directly or indirectly related to the long-lasting legal battles ushered by M C Mehta and thus, the legacy continues.
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