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This article has been written by Nehal Misra, a student at Nirma University, Ahmedabad. In this article, she discusses the contribution of MC Mehta in the formation of environmental laws in India.

Introduction

The Constitution of India, the international commitments of India, reflects the need for protection and conservation of the environment and sustainable use of natural resources. The Constitution under Part IVA (Art 51A-Fundamental Duties) imposes a duty on every Indian citizen to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have respect for living things. Furthermore, under Part IV of the Constitution of India (Art 48A-Directive Principles of State Policies), the State shall endeavour to protect and develop the environment, and to safeguard the country’s forests and wildlife.

Mahesh Chandra Mehta is an environmental lawyer who campaigns for a healthier environment and has won awards for the same. The Magsaysay award jury has cited him for “claiming their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment for present and future citizens of India.” He pressured polluters to pay for it and urged India’s media to bear environmental messages. Mehta lobbied for and promoted the use of lead-free gasoline in India’s four largest cities, the preservation of the Ganga and Beas River from factory-discharged effluents, and several other environmental risks.

About MC Mehta

Mahesh Chandra Mehta is an Indian public-interest lawyer. He completed secondary high school from Rajouri High School. He moved to Jammu University to obtain a degree in Political Science and Law after completing his higher education at Rajouri. He began practising in Jammu and Kashmir High Court after graduating in Law. He has been actively involved in social and political problems, raising his voice against injustice, and inspiring students and youth to stand up against discrimination in Jammu.

He moved to Delhi in 1983 and thereafter started his career as a Supreme Court lawyer. He began focussing on environmental cases. Since 1984, he single-handedly won several landmark judgments from India’s Supreme Court, including the introduction of lead-free petrol into India and the reduction of industrial emissions that pollutes the Ganges and erodes the Taj Mahal. In 1996, he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his ongoing battles against pollution-causing industries in Indian courts. In early 1984, M.C. Mehta visited the Taj Mahal for the first time. He saw that the marble of the famous monument had turned black, and was stained by contaminants from nearby factories. This spurred Mehta to file in India’s Supreme Court for his first environmental case. He also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Asia for Public Service in 1997. The Government of India awarded him the civilian honour of Padma Shri in 2016. He is also a trustee of People for Animals.

Role in environmental jurisprudence in India

The development and progression of ecological jurisprudence in India have been noteworthy. Indian Constitution is one of the ninety Constitutions in the world having a specific piece of legislation and provisions for the protection, promotion, and preservation of the natural environment. Apart from various progressive legislations, the role of the Indian judiciary is of paramount importance. Currently, most of India’s environmental activities are under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution. The judicial writing procedure is best liked over the conventional suit because it is easy, comparatively inexpensive, and offers direct access to the country ‘s best courts. Throughout the environmental case, the Supreme Court ‘s powers to give directions under Article 32 and the high courts under Article 226 have acquired greater significance.

The Supreme Court of India in its landmark judgment of Subhash Kumar v. State of state took the initial steps for incorporating a pollution-free environment under the expandable vision of Article 21. The Supreme Court extended this decision in the case of M. C. Mehta v. Union of India, by concluding that life, public health, and ecology is entitled to a priority over the state and rural financial condition. Justice Kuldip Singh in Vellore Citizens Forum v. Union of India case, the concept of sustainable development was applied for the first time in India. It was this judgment in which the principle to include a customary international law within India in environmental jurisprudence was adopted.

MC Mehta’s group of cases reflects the right to a humane and healthy environment. The first MC Mehta case broadened the definition of the right to live and limited hazardous industrial practices with the goal of protecting people’s right to live in a safe environment. There were some improvements in the second case of MC Mehta, however, the third case of MC Mehta developed a new jurisprudence of responsibility to the pollution victims caused by an industry engaged in hazardous and potentially harmful practices. The fourth case of MC Mehta concerned the tanning industries situated on the banks of Ganga allegedly polluting the water. The Court gave them orders to create effluent plants within six months from the date of the order. It was stated that failure to do so would result in the company being cut off. The four MC Mehta cases came before the Supreme Court on the initiative of the public-spirited lawyer under Article 32 of the Constitution. He filed lawsuits for the people affected or likely to be affected by any action or inaction on behalf of those.

  • M.C. Mehta’s environmental litigation cases of public interest have established the basis for the growth of environmental jurisprudence in India, and indeed South Asia today. C.M. The following seminal principles in Indian environmental jurisprudence were established in the Mehta cases:
  • The fundamental right to life applies to a safe and clean climate.
  • Courts are authorized to grant financial compensation as a remedy for violating the right to life.
  • Polluters should be held liable for compensating for the damage that their dangerous activities inflict.
  • Public resources that are vulnerable, fragile, or of high environmental value should be protected and retained for the public.
  • Similarly, the Government has a duty to avoid deterioration of the environment. However, if there is scientific ambiguity, there should be no hesitation in adopting preventive measures anywhere there is a potential for severe or permanent harm.
  • Green benches should be set up in high courts in India which deal specifically with environmental cases.
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Landmark cases fought by him

  • Taj Mahal case: M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and others 

Taj Mahal faced significant pollution from Mathura Refinery, Iron Foundries, Glass, and other chemical industries. The Taj Mahal and 255 other historic monuments within the Taj trapezium were facing serious threats due to acid rain as a result of very high toxic emissions from those industries. In 1984 the Complaint was filed. In December 1996, the Indian Supreme Court delivered a historic judgment. The apex court gave different directions including banning coal and coke use and directing the industries to switch to Compressed Natural Gas ( CNG).

  • Pollution case: M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and others

Three landmark judgments and numerous orders passed from time to time against polluting industries in the Ganga basin totalling more than fifty thousand. A large number of factories were closed by the Court and permitted to reopen only after the establishment of effluent treatment plants and regulated emissions by those factories. As a result of these directions, millions of people in the Ganga basin covering 8 states in India have been spared from the effects of air and water pollution.

  • Vehicular pollution case

In 1992 the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment against vehicular emissions in India. A retired Supreme Court judge was appointed to recommend measures to control vehicle pollution nationwide, along with three members. Orders for the supply of lead-free petrol in India and the use of natural gas and other fuels for vehicle use in India have been passed and carried out. Lead-free petrol has been introduced in the four metropolitan cities since April 1995; all new cars registered since April 1995 have been equipped with catalytic converters; COG outlets have been established to supply CNG as a clean fuel in Delhi and other cities in India other than Euro 2 standards.

  • Oleum gas leak case: M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and others

This is a landmark judgment which established the principle of Absolute Liability. The fertilizer plant was very close to human dwelling, and the court held that it could not be permitted to carry on a hazardous industry in such proximity to the population and relocate the factory. The principle of deep pocket was also set out in the instant case. This judgment also marked a time of dramatic legislative advance in India. The Parliament added an entirely new chapter to the Factory Act of 1948 incorporating sections from the Judgment almost verbatim. The Public Liability Insurance Act was passed and the Emission Control abatement scheme was placed in effect. Also, the Environmental Protection Act and the Policy for the Abatement of Pollution Control were established.

  • Delhi sewage treatment plant case

Approximately 10 million people living in Delhi and millions living along the banks of the Yamuna River were exposed to health hazards caused by water contamination due to the total lack of sewage treatment plants in many areas of Delhi. In this case, the Supreme Court gave the Delhi Municipal Corporation a time-bound system for the establishment of a treatment plant in 16 separate localities.

  • Child labour case

The case raised the question of child slavery in the fireworks industries in Tamil Nadu. Due to which over one million children who worked in the fireworks industry benefited. Thus, the scope of the case has been extended to include child labour throughout the country. The Supreme Court ordered all States to identify forced labouring children and to come out with rehabilitation schemes. Child labour was banned in dangerous industries. In another case, they released 194 children unlawfully detained in different Odisha jails.

  • Environmental awareness and education case

A minimum of 5 to 7 minutes must be provided by the television network throughout the country to television programs on the environment and the cinema theatres in the country must show slides related to the environment in each show. The environment became a mandatory subject from the 1992 academic session up to the 12th grade, and the University Grants Commission also incorporated this subject in higher classes at various universities.

  • Delhi ridge case

It was obtained to save the Delhi ridge from the Supreme Court’s destruction order directing Delhi’s NCT to declare it as ‘Reserved Forest.’

  • Dust pollution case

In a historic event, by order of the Supreme Court on May 15, 1992, 212 stone crushers were moved out of Delhi to a ‘Crushing Zone’ formed in Haryana. It reduced the emission of more than 1500 tons of dust released daily in the atmosphere.

  • Kamal Nath case

In the State of Himachal Pradesh, a motel in Spain, owned by Shri Kamal Nath, Minister of Environment and Forests, Govt. The Beas River Course was diverted from India to beautify the motel and also invaded some forest land. The apex tribunal ordered the Span motel management to hand over forest land to the Govt. Of Himachal Pradesh and delete all kinds of invasions. The Court handed down a landmark judgment and founded for the first time in India the principle of exemplary damages. India’s Supreme Court accepted the principle of polluter paying and the Principle of Public Trust.

  • Coastal areas case

Notwithstanding the Coastal Zone Regulation Notification of February 1991, none of the coastal states had devised a coastal zone management plan, with the result that hazardous construction and industrial operation were allowed anywhere in the coast, resulting in large-scale harm to coastal ecosystems and loss of livelihood for lakhs of fishermen and other marine-dependent indigenous resources. On behalf of the Indian Council for Enviro- Legal Action (ICELA), a written petition was filed and the Supreme Court issued a landmark judgment banning industrial / construction activities within 500 meters of the High Tide Line and set a time limit for coastal states to devise coastal management plans.

  • Antop Hill case: M.C. Mehta v. Union of India

A large-scale chemical storage centre for hazardous chemicals was proposed to be set up in the heart of Mumbai at Antop Hill, to flout all environmental standards and health of more than 1.5 million people living in and around this city. A case was filed in the Supreme Court, and the authorities/industries were stopped from locating such godowns in due course.

  • Gamma chamber case

Delhi has been protected from harmful radiation because of the filing of a case against radiation from a Gamma Chamber, students, and teachers at Jawaharlal Nehru University ( JNU).

  • Groundwater pollution case: Indian council for enviro-legal action v. Union of India

Five small chemical factories, owned by a single person, worked in Rajasthan at Bichhri without treatment plants for effluents. Toxic industrial effluents entered the groundwater and 14 village wells became affected. After six years of battle in the Trial, the Supreme Court delivered, in March 1996, a judgment ordering the closure of the factories and assigning the polluter ‘s property to the Department of Environment and Forests Govt. India ‘s recovery of the eco-recovery costs from the industries held responsible for causing environmental damage.

  • Groundwater depletion case

Unsystematic and unscientific groundwater tapping throughout the country had led to an alarming fall in groundwater levels, and data provided by the Ground Water Board showed a near-crisis situation developing in many parts of the country. Furthermore, groundwater contamination due to the indiscriminate discharge of toxic effluents to land and surface water bodies occurred in an unregulated and uncontrolled manner and pollution control boards were not in a position either to determine the level of groundwater contamination or to classify contamination sources. The groundwater board has no power or legal jurisdiction to prosecute guilty parties. The matter was challenged in the Supreme Court and a landmark judgment was rejected, the Board of Groundwater had made an authority invested with legal powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1986 to grant licenses and take action against polluters up to the degree that the offending industries were closed

Conclusion

India has a conspicuous natural legacy that is owed to its biodiversity. There was a clear legal provision for preventing the destruction of the nation ‘s substantial biodiversity. The Courts have been successful in achieving this aim. In Andhra Pradesh, Pollution Control Board v MV Nayudu the Supreme Court formed the nexus between natural protection and human rights. In the case of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs. the State of U.P., (Popularly known as Dehradun Quarrying Case), the right to live in a safe environment was recognized as part of Article 21 of the Constitution. In M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India, (Popularly known as “Oleum Gas Leak Case”) – Under Article 21 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court recognized as part of the fundamental right to life the right to live in a pollution-free environment. And the P.A. High court, in T. Damodar Rao vs. S.O., Municipal Corporation, Hyderabad clarified that the right to live in a safe environment was expressly stated under Article. 21. The right to environment is often associated with human rights. The right to life is guaranteed as a fundamental right under article 21. To live a healthy life, our environment and surroundings should be pollution-free and clean. Therefore, the judiciary in India has broadened the scope of Article 21 by adding the right to a clean, protected, and balanced climate. The Supreme Court held class actions under Article 32 and the High Courts under Article 226 of the Constitution as part of proceedings in the public interest for a fundamental right to a safe environment. The Supreme Court is extending the distinctive legitimate arrangements for ecological insurance to fill in the holes where there is the elegance of the enactment. From the above-discussed cases and the principles evolved from them, we conclude that MC Mehta has contributed immensely towards the environmental laws in India through widening the scope of the fundamental right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. 

References


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