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M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Kanpur Tanneries’ matter)
---AIR (1987) 4 SCC 463 ---

This was perhaps one of the earliest cases where the activities of tanneries were brought to the attention of the Supreme Court. This case was a public interest litigation presented before a Division Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court comprising of E.S. Venkataramiah and K.N. Singh, JJ. The petitioner M.C. Mehta, who was an active social worker had filed this petition inter alia for the issue of a writ/order/direction in the nature of mandamus to the respondents restraining them from letting out the trade effluents into River Ganga until the time they put up necessary treatment plants for treating the trade effluents in order to arrest the pollution of water on the said river. Respondent 1 was the Union of India, Respondent 7 — the Chairman of the Central Board for Prevention and Control of Pollution, Respondent 8 — the Chairman, Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board and Respondent 9 — the Indian Standards Institute. Respondents 14 to 87 and 89 were the tanneries near Kanpur.

It was the complaint of the petitioner that neither the Government nor the people were giving adequate attention to stop the pollution of River Ganga. It was therefore sought that steps should be taken for the purpose of protecting the cleanliness of the stream in River Ganga. It was contended that the trade effluent ---“Trade effluent” includes any liquid, gaseous or solid substance, which is discharged from any premises used for carrying on any trade or industry, other than domestic sewage.--- discharged from tanneries was ten times noxious when compared with the domestic sewage water which flows into the river from any urban area on its banks and was thus a major source of pollution of River Ganga.

There was not much dispute on the question that the discharge of the trade effluents from these tanneries into River Ganga had been causing considerable damage to the life of the people who used the water of River Ganga and also to the aquatic life in the river. However, the tanneries of Kanpur had presented that due to lack of physical facilities, technical knowhow and funds, it had not been possible for most of them to install adequate treatment facilities. It was pleaded on behalf of a few tanneries that if some time was given to them to establish the pre-treatment plants they would install them. It was, however, submitted by all of them that it would not be possible for them to have the secondary system for treating waste water as that would involve enormous expenditure which the tanneries themselves would not be able to meet.

In his judgment Venkataramiah, J., held that the State was under a constitutional duty to protect and improve the environment --- “Environment” includes water, air and land and the interrelationship, which exists among and between water, air and land and human beings, other living creatures, plants, micro-organisms and property. [Section 2(a) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.] --- and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. ---Article 48-A of the Constitution of India.---

In the opinion of the Court, it was a fundamental duty of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and have compassion for all living creatures. ---Article 51-A of the Constitution of India. See also Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 1972. --- As a result, there was a statutory prohibition against the use of any stream or well for the disposal of polluting matter. ---Section 24 of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. --- This meant that no person could knowingly cause or permit any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter to enter, directly or indirectly, into any stream; or, knowingly cause or permit to enter into any stream any other matter which may tend, either directly or in combination with similar matters to impose an obstruction on the proper flow of the water of the stream.

The Court further held that it was the duty of the State Government, through the State Boards, ---Sections 16 and 17 of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.--- and the Central Government to use the powers conferred upon them by statute to take all such measures as it deemed necessary or expedient for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment and preventing, controlling and abating environmental pollution. ---Sections 3 and 5 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Return to Text---

In cases of this nature, the Court could issue appropriate directions if it found that public nuisance or other wrongful acts affecting or likely to affect the public are being committed and the statutory authorities, who are charged with the duty to prevent such activities, are not taking adequate steps to rectify the grievance. ---Under the laws of the land the responsibility for treatment of the industrial effluents is that of the industry. Even the concept of “Strict Liability” could be adhered to in some cases if the circumstances so required.---

Finally, it was said that just like an industry which cannot pay minimum wages to its workers, cannot be allowed to exist, a tannery which cannot set up a primary treatment plant couldn’t be permitted to continue to be in existence. This is because the adverse effects on the public at large which are likely to ensue by the pollution of the Ganga would be immense and would outweigh any inconvenience that may be caused to the management and the labour employed by it on account of closure of the tanneries. Thus, the financial capacity of the tanneries was to be considered as irrelevant while requiring them to establish primary treatment plants. It was, therefore, directed that those tanneries, which had failed to take the minimum steps required for the primary treatment of industrial effluent were to be closed down, and though such closure of tanneries could bring unemployment, loss of revenue, etc. life, health and ecology were held to have greater importance to the people.

What we see in this decision is a pro-active and bold stance taken by the Hon’ble Supreme Court towards the protection of the fragile environment in which we exist. There is a realisation of the great role played by our rivers, especially the Ganga in the lives of millions of Indians and the dire need to protect it. The noteworthy aspect of this decision is the high standards of accountability that it creates for the concerned statutory bodies, with respect to the protection of the environment. Another aspect, which is worth noting, is the great emphasis it lays on the protection of environment over the economic interests and feasibility arguments advanced by the polluting tanneries.