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M.C.Mehta v/s Union of India

Man's development is often seen to happen at the cost of the environment. From improper disposal of non-biodegradable items to large industrial discharge, everything takes a toll on the environment without which human life cannot thrive. The Ganga, which is regarded as the most sacred river in India, has now become a recipient of huge amounts of domestic and industrial waste. The case revolves around the discharge of harmful industrial effluents into the river.

The case analysis aims to scrutinize the background, facts, issues raised, arguments of both sides and highlighted concepts in the case and mentions them as succinctly as possible.

  • Bench - E.S. Venkataramiah and K.N. Singh, JJ. - Date of Judgment  22nd September 1987
Emanating from the Himalayas, the Ganga flows south and then eastwards and drains itself into the Bay of Bengal. The length of the river is 2,525 km and has been the lifeline of many civilizations in India. Kanpur with its population of 2.9 million people becomes one of the biggest cities located on the banks of river Ganga and discharges a huge amount of waste into the river. The main pollutant from this city is the industrial/trade effluents from the leather industry.

The wastewater from this industry contains putrescible organic and toxic inorganic material when discharged in the water will deplete the level of dissolved oxygen in the waterbody and will lead to the death of aquatic life and would cause harm to any person who consumes this water. The case was taken up by the Supreme Court via a writ petition filed by the renowned lawyer, Shri MC Mehta who is regarded as a pioneer in the field on environmental law and it was found that many industries on the banks of the river were discharging their effluents into the river even without primary treatment of the same. The case is alternatively known as the Ganga sollution case, Kanpur Leather Tanneries case or Mehta I.

Facts of the Case
M.C. Mehta, an environmental lawyer and social activist, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India against about 89 respondents, wherein Respondent 1, Respondent 7, Respondent 8 and Respondent 9 were Union of India, the Chairman of the Central Board for srevention and Control of sollution, the Chairman of Uttar sradesh sollution Control Board and Indian Standards Institute respectively who were not held liable.

The court ruling commenced in 1985 in the holy city of Haridwar located along the banks of the stream Ganga when a matchstick flung by a smoker resulted in the river bursting into flames for over 30 hours. The fire was discovered to be a consequence of the presence of harmful inflammable compound layer over the waters. The Court had believed the issue to be one of prime significance, however, the immense size of the case, i.e., the stretch of the river, was found to be troublesome.

  1. Whether all the leather tanneries had at least set up a primary treatment plant
  2. Whether the State Government had paid attention to the worsening condition of the sacred river and had initiated probation into the matter?
  3. Whether any steps, if at all, had been taken by the state?
  4. Whether the smaller industries should be funded for setting up effluent treatment plants? If yes, then what should be the criteria to determine smaller industries?
  5. What all steps should the Central Government must take to regulate pollutant discharge into the river throughout its course?

Arguments of Petitioner:
  1. The petitioner had grieved that neither the authorities nor the people, whose lives were intricately connected with the river and directed affected by it, seemed to be concerned about the increasing levels of pollution of the Ganga and necessary steps were required to prevent the same.

  2. The petitioner, in the capacity of an active social worker, had therefore sought a writ/direction/order in the nature of mandamus, directing inter alia inhibiting the Respondents from releasing toxic effluents into the Ganga until they integrate appropriate treatment plants to treat the effluents to stop water pollution.

Arguments of Respondents:
  1. None of the tanneries disputed the fact that the effluent discharge from the tanneries grossly pollutes the Ganga
  2. It was stated that they discharge the trade effluents into the sewage nullah, which leads to the Municipal Sewage slants before discharge into the river.
  3. Some tanneries stated that they have already had primary treatment plants, while some are presently engaged in the same.
  4. Some of the tanneries who were members of the Hindustan Chambers of Commerce and some of the other tanneries guaranteed that with the approval of Respondent 8 (State Board), they would construct primary treatment plants which would be operational within a period of six months from the date of hearing and in failing to do so, will shut down their tanneries
  5. However, they argued that it would not be possible for them to establish secondary treatment plants to treat the wastewater further as it would involve huge expenditure which is beyond their means.

The court considered all the facts and gave the judgment in 1988. The court in this case, stated that petitioner was someone who was interested in protecting the people who were using the water and he could file a petition to enforce statutory provisions against the mahapalika and other officials involved. The court indicated that several waters borne diseases that could result due to the polluted water and how it is very harmful for the common man. On the issue of whose responsibility was it, the court held that the industries were responsible to make sure that their waste is treated properly and then discharged.

The court further said that an industry should be given a license only if they can demonstrate an adequate way of treating the waste. The existing industries if, found responsible for water pollution then strict action must be taken against them. The court also ordered the tanneries to establish a primary treatment plant if not a secondary one.

The court also held the mahapalika responsible for not obliging to their duties and not taking any steps for prevention of water pollution. It issued directions to the mahapalika to take immediate actions for the same.
The court also asked the central government to issue books free of cost in order to increase the knowledge regarding the environment of the general public. It also said that this judgement would be applicable to all the Mahapalikas which have a jurisdiction over the river Ganga.

The judgement is still considered as one of the major ruling in the field of environmental law in our country. The judgement took up various new situations and ways of interpretation of the laws and Fundamental Rights. The stances laid down in this case are still being used by the court. Hence this case served as landmark ruling in the history of Indian Judiciary.

The case is not all about the rights of people, compensation and economic losses but the case also brought in front of the entire country the seriousness of environmental issues. The disasters like this and Bhopal gas tragedy had acted very dangerously for the environment. In the present world of technological development and industries the threat to the environment is very expedient.

As much this advancement is necessary for the development of the society, there is an urgent need to focus attention towards environmental problems being posed by this development. As each passing day we are bringing ourselves closer to the end of the environment. Environment is a privilege provided to us to everyone residing on this earth and it is everyone's human right to enjoy a safe and healthy environment and it is also everybody's duty to work for it and contributes towards its betterment.



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