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A Landmark Case for Environmental Justice in Tamil Nadu: Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum vs Union Of India

Coram/Court: Justice Kuldip Singh, Justice Faizan Uddin, Justice K. Venkata Swami
The 'Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum' has instituted a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) under Article 32 of the Constitution, invoking the jurisdiction of the Honourable Court. The PIL contends that there exists pervasive environmental degradation and water pollution attributable to the unchecked release of untreated effluents and waste discharge by tanneries and various industrial entities situated in Tamil Nadu into tha Palar river, which functions as the principal reservoir catering to the water supply needs of the local population of that area. The unprocessed sewage discharge has led to contamination of both the visible water surface and the underground water layers, causing a scarcity of clean water for the residents in that locality.

Tamil Nadu Agricultural University Research Centre conducted a survey and it was found that more than 35,000 hectares of agricultural lands have become either partially or totally unfit for agriculture in tanneries belt due to the excessive use of chemicals and dyes which resulted in spoilage of quality of the soil and contaminated the groundwater. Around 350 wells out of 467 were polluted. It was further stated that out of 584 tanneries only 443 tanneries have applied for the consent of the board.

  • Whether the tanneries should be permitted to keep on working at the expense of environment and health & lives of lakhs of individuals?
  1. The court has instructed the national government to constitute an authority as per Section 3(3) of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Additionally, it has provided specific instructions or rules on how this committee should operate:
    • The authority was given the necessary powers to deal with issues concerning tanneries and other polluting industries in Tamil Nadu State.
    • The authority has the authority to give directives under Section 5 of the Environment Act. It should apply the precautionary principle as well as the polluter pays principle.
  2. The court has mandated the calculation of compensation under two categories: one for compensating individuals and another for restoring the environment. A detailed statement outlining the total compensation, the identities of the polluting entities, the affected families, and the overall sum to be deposited must be prepared. This amount is to be handed over to the district magistrate/collector of the relevant area, who will then distribute the funds to those affected.
  3. The court also levied a pollution fine of Rs. 10,000 on each of the tanneries located in North Arcot Ambedkar, Dindigul Anna, Erode Periyar, Chennai M.G.R., and Trichi. The tanneries are required to make this payment before October 31, 1996. The collected amount is designated to be submitted to district magistrate/collector under the category of the environment protection fund. This fund will be used to compensate those affected and to undertake restoration efforts for the damaged environment.
  4. It has further directed to set up common treatment plants or individual pollution control devices and also has to obtain consent from the board for further operation.
  5. The court has instructed the police superintendent and local authorities to promptly close tanneries lacking board permission, either permanently or through relocation.
  6. The court emphasized that the set TDS standards by the board are in effect, and all industries and tanneries in Tamil Nadu must adhere to them.
  7. The court directed the Madras High Court to establish a special "Green Bench" to handle this case and other environmental matters.
  8. The court instructed Tamil Nadu to pay Rs.50,000 to MC Mehta for legal fees and expenses, commending his active involvement.

In presenting their case, the 'Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum' emphasizes the overarching public interest and the constitutional imperative to protect and preserve the environment for the present and future generations. The PIL underscores the need for the judiciary's intervention as a guardian of fundamental rights and custodian of environmental justice, seeking a just and equitable resolution to the ecological challenges posed by industrial activities in Tamil Nadu.

This ruling has had a significant influence on environmental law and policy in India by emphasizing the responsibilities of industries towards environmental protection and sustainable development. This ruling was a significant step in emphasizing the 'Precautionary Principle' and 'Polluter Pays Principle' as essential elements of sustainable development in India's environmental law.

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