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Man Who Stood for Better Future: MAHESH CHANDRA MEHTA

Abhishek Shivam Tripathi, Legal News Reporter

“It’s time people realized that if they don’t come forward to protect their fundamental right to live in a wholesome environment, no one else will.”

M.C. MEHTA

A lawyer and an environmentalist. It is impossible that one in a law school is unaware of this name. He is particularly known for his enviro-legal activism in the 80s and after. He was born in a small village Dhangri of district Rajouri, Jammu and Kashmir. He got his primary education in Dhangri and secondary education in Rajouri. For higher education he went to Jammu where he completed post-graduation in political science and law degree from Jammu University. He actively participated in social and political issues during his college. He moved to Delhi in 1983 and in 1984 began to focus on environmental litigation. He has been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, the UN’s Global 500 Award for 1993, the Magsaysay Award for 1997 and Padmashree award in 2016.

LANDMARK CASES OF M.C.MEHTA

TAJ TRAPEZIUM CASE (M.C. MEHTA V. UNION OF INDIA and Ors., AIR 1997 SC 734)

Taj Mahal, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, made up entirely of beautiful white marbles was being discolored to yellowish and getting brown and black dots all over. It caused due to the highly toxic gas emission from the Mathura Refinery, iron industries, glass industries and other chemical industries situated in Taj Trapezium area. High emission of sulfur caused acid rain affecting Taj Mahal and other 255 monuments coming under Taj Trapezium. The court ordered the relocation of factories and refineries outside Taj Trapezium and also passed an order regarding establishment and regulation of industries. The court also ordered industries to shift from coke/coal to natural gas in a specified time as their fuel.

GANGES POLLUTION CASE/ KANPUR TANNERIES CASE (M.C. MEHTA V. UNION OF INDIA, AIR 1988, SC 1037)

Kanpur is popular for its leather industries. The industries used to discharge their untreated influents in Ganga River. This made water highly infected and unfit for drinking, bathing, and fishing. The court accepted the petition mentioning the industries essentially created public nuisance and taken as public interest litigation. The industries were held liable and directed to ensure that industrial waste is treated before discharge in river and also action should be taken against existing industries. The Nagar Mahapalika was also held liable for not taking proper measures to check and prevent pollution. Also under Article 51A of Constitution its duty of Central Government to prevent pollution and protect the environment, and central government should take steps to increase awareness.

OLEUM GAS LEAK CASE/ SHRIRAM FOOD FERTILIZER CASE (M.C.MEHTA V. UNION OF INDIA, AIR 1987 SC 965)

On 4th December 1985, a major leakage of Oleum gas took place from one of the units within the plant. On 6th December there was another leakage from a joint in pipeline. These incidents affected thousands of people including employees and people residing in the neighborhood. An immediate action was taken by Delhi Administration issuing an order to stop production of any hazardous substance. A writ petition was filed under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution. The court held that any enterprise that is engaged in an inherently dangerous activity is `absolutely’ liable to compensate all those affected by an accident. The key feature of the judgment was the principle of `absolute liability’, in which no exceptions (such as an `act of God’) are brooked. Another principle laid down, in this case, was ‘deep pocket theory’ i.e. amount of damages and fine will be based on the paying capacity of an individual.

KAMAL NATH CASE (M.C. MEHTA V. KAMAL NATH and Ors., (1997) 1 SCC 388)

Span Motels Pvt. Ltd. Owning Span resorts started new project Span Clubs. The Clubs were encroaching a substantive area of forest land. The motel authorities used bulldozers and earth-movers to divert the course of Beas River to beautify the motel and also to avoid loss from flood situations. The then Minister of Environment and Forest was an owner in Span Motels Pvt. Ltd. The regularisation of the leased land was done when he was a minister.

In this high profiled case the court the first time established the principle of exemplary damages. Also ordered to pay the cost of restoration for the damages caused by their act and a fine of Rs. 10,00,000 was imposed. The Supreme Court of India also recognized the principle of Public Trust Doctrine which says that “certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use, and that the government owns and must protect and maintain these resources for the public’s use. For example, under this doctrine, the government holds title to all submerged land under navigable waters. Thus, any use or sale of such land must be in the public interest”[i].

VEHICULAR POLLUTION IN DELHI CASE (M.C.MEHTA V. UNION OF INDIA, W.P.939 of 1996)

The writ petition filed under Article 21 of Indian Constitution regarding increasing pollution in Delhi. The Petitioner challenged the inaction on the part of the Union of India, Delhi Administration and other Authorities whereby smoke, highly toxic and other corrosive gases were allowed to pass into the air due to which the lives of the people of Delhi were put to high risk.

The important directions issued by the Hon’ble Court on 28.7.1998 are Augmentation of public transport to 10,000 buses, Elimination of leaded petrol from NCT Delhi, Supply of only pre-mix petrol for two-stroke engines of two-wheelers and autos, Replacement of all pre-1990 autos and taxies with new vehicles on clean fuels, No 8 year old buses to ply except on CNG or other clean fuels, New ISBTs to be built at entry points in North and South-West to avoid pollution due to entry of interstate buses, Comprehensive inspection and maintenance programme to be started. The Hon’ble Court also directed that the time frame as fixed by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority should be strictly adhered to by all the authorities.

GAMMA CHAMBER CASE (M.C.MEHTA VS UNION OF INDIA, W.P.4677/1985)

Against the hazardous radiation, a PIL was filed in the Apex Court. The Court’s timely intervention saved the students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) from the radiation Gamma Chamber, New Delhi. Later on, the setup was sent to Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Bombay for further research and cause.

Some other landmark cases are:

DELHI SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT CASE

CHILD LABOUR CASE

DELHI RIDGE CASE

DUST POLLUTION CASE

COASTAL AREA CASES

ANTOP HILL CASE

GROUNDWATER POLLUTION CASE

From Ganga to taj mahal and from the air we breathe to the water we drink, M.C. Mehta single-handedly have won numerous judgment for generations to come and for the very survival of this earth. He has won more than 40 landmark judgments in favor of better environment and obtained several orders against the polluters. He stood for a better future. He in his long fight showed that how desperately we need enviro-legal activism. The importance of public interest litigation and role of the judiciary in safeguarding the environment is well manifested in his accomplishments. Last three decades have seen a major development in the environmental law. PIL has proved to be an effective tool in the area of environmental protection. In PIL a spirited individual fight for the right and benefit of society at large or on behalf of people unaware of things around. Enviro-Legal Activism shall be promoted in the country for a better tomorrow. If we will stand for ourselves and our future generations then who?!  M.C.Mehta is an inspiration for the world and we should carry forward his revolution for the environment.

[i] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/public_trust_doctrine

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