MC Mehta vs UOI - Asian Judges Network on Environment (AJNE)

Role of Indian Judiciary in
Addressing Air and Water
Justice Hima Kohli
Judge, High Court of Delhi
New Delhi
“The waters in the sky, the waters of
rivers, and water in the well whose
source is the ocean, may all these
sacred waters protect me.”
-Rig Veda, Book VII (Hymn 49, Verse 2)
• The Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and
other such ancient scriptures emphasize
the importance of maintaining an
ecological balance.
• Objects of nature like air, water, trees,
etc. have been worshiped in India and
other ancient civilisations.
•It is the dharma/duty of each individual
to protect the Nature.
• The ancient Indian texts, Manusmritis, a
compilation of ancient laws, prescribe
different punishments for causing injury to
• Landmark summits and conferences have
environmental legislations of the world.
• The Stockholm Conference, 1972, gave a
major boost to the promulgation of
environment legislation in India.
Legal Framework
• Water (Prevention and Control of
Pollution) Act, 1974
• Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution)
Act, 1981
• Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EPA)
• Hazardous Wastes (Management and
Handling) Rules 1989
• The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010
Role of Indian Judiciary
• The Supreme Court and the High Courts
have developed environmental laws in
India through careful judicial thinking.
•The Courts have incorporated various
international doctrines, combined with a
liberal view towards ensuring social justice
and the protection of human rights as a
part of environmental jurisprudence under
Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Role of Public Interest Litigation
• Majority of cases before the court are
writ petitions, by individuals acting on a
pro bono basis.
• PIL is a result of the relaxation of the
locus standi rules while departing from the
“proof of injury” approach.
• These cases are concerned with the rights
of the community as a whole rather than
an individual .
Ratlam Municipal Council vs Vardhichand
[AIR 1980 SC 1622]
• The Supreme Court had introduced the
concept of PIL for the first time and had
stated that a responsible Municipal Council
constituted for the precise purpose of
preserving public health, cannot run away
from its principal duty by pleading
financial inability.
M.C. Mehta vs UOI
(Shriram Gas Leak Case)
[AIR 1987 SC 1086]
• Absolute Liability imposed on industries
dealing with hazardous material.
• Scope of Article 21 broadened by
compensation to victims of pollution
River Ganga, that rises from
the western Himalayas,
Gangetic plains to empty
into the Bay of Bengal, has
the most heavily populated
river basin in the world.
M.C. Mehta vs UOI
(Ganga Pollution case)
[AIR 1988 SC 1037]
• Between 1988 to 1996, the Supreme
Court had ordered and monitored
shutting down of all the tanneries
located along river Ganga that had failed
to set up a primary treatment plant as
the waste generated by them was found
to be ten times more noxious than the
domestic sewage waste.
Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum vs UOI
[AIR 1988 SC 1037]
• The untreated effluents of tanneries
and industries was being directly
discharged into the main source of
water supply to the city of Vellore.
• Principle of “absolute liability” upheld
to also cover the cost of restoring
environmental degradation.
M.C. Mehta vs UOI
(Taj Trapezium Case)
[AIR 1997 SC 734]
• Supreme Court stepped in to control
the damage caused to the ‘Taj Mahal’
and other monuments due to the
emissions of air pollutants by the nearby
M.C. Mehta vs UOI
(Taj Trapezium Case)
[AIR 1997 SC 734]
•A block of monuments in the shape
of a trapezium around the Taj was
identified and the industries were
ordered to change the fuel being used
by them else, shift operations outside
the trapezium.
MC Mehta vs UOI
(Delhi CNG Case)
• PIL on vehicular pollution in Delhi filed
in 1985. The Supreme Court passed a
series of orders as a part of
‘continuous mandamus’ procedure.
• In 1998, due to the dangerously high
level of air toxin, the commercial buses
were directed to change the fuel to CNG.
• This transition was given effect to in a
phased manner ending in the year 2002.
MC Mehta vs UOI
(Delhi CNG Case)
•The judgement had initially drawn severe
criticism from various quarters.
•Inconvenience was caused to the general
public due to the limited supply of CNG.
•In the long run this decision had been
instrumental in a drastic drop of air toxins.
•Today, all public transport in Delhi has
switched to the use of CNG.
Research Foundation for Science Technology
and Natural Resources Policy vs UOI
(2007) 8 SCC 583
•The Supreme Court denied access to
the French ship ‘Clemenceau’ to make
port at the Alang Ship breaking yard.
•Showing concern over the operation of
the Shipbreaking resulting in maritime
pollution, the Court asked for
recommendations from a committee of
technical experts constituted by it.
Research Foundation for Science Technology
and Natural Resources Policy vs. UOI
(2007) 8 SCC 583
• Directions were issued to the
Government to enact a legislation on
this aspect, and as an interim
measure, the court had laid down a
set of guidelines to be followed in
order to mitigate the harm caused to
the environment by this activity.
National Green Tribunal (NGT)
•The NGT was established by the National
Green Tribunal Act, 2010.
• The NGT called upon state and the local
authorities to perform their duties in
curbing air and water pollution.
•Recently 34 hotels in a famous Hill-Station
in North India that were found dumping
their waste material into the river Beas
were ordered to be shut down by NGT.
National Green Tribunal (NGT)
• As Delhi falls in seismic zone IV, the
NGT has directed demolition of all
unauthorized structures in Delhi erected on
the riverbed and the flood plains of River
Yamuna that are likely to cause ecological
havoc as they have been built on a weak
foundation of soft alluvial soil.
• Environmental law has evolved at a fast
pace establishing a number of fundamental
principles for its better implementation.
•Supreme Court of India and the High
Courts of the States have incorporated
various international doctrines relating to
environment as part of the environmental
jurisprudence in India.
• The concept of PIL has facilitated
access to justice for all classes of the
• The doctrine of ‘public trust’ has deep
roots in the constitutional commitments.
• The Indian judiciary has proved itself
to be a strategic partner in promoting
environmental governance, in upholding
the rule of law and in ensuring a fair
balance between environmental, social
and developmental considerations.
Thank You
Justice Hima Kohli
Judge, High Court of Delhi
New Delhi

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