AN ODE TO THE GREEN LAWYER OF INDIA: MAHESH CHANDRA MEHTA

Mahesh Chandra Mehta
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About the Author:

Siddhi Gokuldas Naik is an advocate and currently pursuing LLM from V.M. Salgocar College of Law, Goa

“Our rivers, streams, fields, and forests are not for plunder they are a trust and a shared wealth given to us for use and not to exploit. We can no longer allow the greed of a few to temper withour Earth!”

-M.C.Mehta, atthe Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony (1996)

An extremely honest and fearless personality, Mahesh Chandra Mehta  commonly known as sir M.C.Mehta in the legal world is the architect of Environmental Jurisprudence in India. A well-known Public Interest Attorney, without mentioning his contribution to the environmental jurisprudence in India, learning about Environmental Law is incomplete.

THE ENVIRO-LITIGATOR

Often referred to as the ‘One Man Enviro-Legal Brigade’, M.C.Mehta is the only Supreme Court Lawyer to file numerous Public Interest Environmental litigations. He has emerged victorious in over forty landmark Supreme Court Cases. These leading judgments have formed the basis for the evolution of the Environmental Jurisprudence in not only India but also in the entire South Asian region. Some of  these notable cases are as follows:

SAVIOUR OF TAJ MAHAL: THE TAJ TRAPEZIUM CASE, (1984)

[M.C.Mehta v. Union of  India and Others, (1987) A.I.R. 1086, (1987) S.C.R. (1) 819]

Taj Mahal, which is known as the ‘epitome of beauty’ was in danger because of the acid rain caused due to the emissions generated by coke and coal-consuming industries surrounding the same. The gleaming white marble was turning yellow because of the corroding effect. The surrounding nature and the health of the people living around the Taj Trapezium were also affected.

In 1984, M.C.Mehta took up this issue and filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India. He invoked the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and the Environment Protection Act, 1986. He pleaded the relocation of 292 industries.

In 1986, the Supreme Court ordered these industries to switch over to natural gases, and the industries which were not able to get natural gas connections, and were functioning with the help of coke and coal were asked to stop their operation. Also, the workmen working in those industries were given appropriate compensation.

SRIRAM FOOD FERTILISER CASE/ OLEUM GAS LEAK DISASTER, (1987)

[M.C.Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) S.C.R. (1) 819; A.I.R. (1987) 965]

This case was a result of the Oleum gas leakage that occurred on 4th December 1985 from the Sriram Food Fertilisers Ltd. complex situated in Delhi. This leakage created a lot of tension in Delhi, caused tremendous injuries to the people, and even caused death of one person.

Mehta had filed litigation against the Chlorine plant just one month before the leakage. A notable coincidence was that the hearing of this matter was fixed on the same day when the leakage occurred. When the matter came up, he stressed the Oleum gas leakage that happened just 3 hours earlier and the disastrous impact it had caused to the public. The court on account of the seriousness of the matter delivered a quick judgment.This landmark judgment brought into light, the Principle of Absolute Liability and the concept of ‘deep pockets’. The Court held that –

‘The corporation owed an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm was caused to anyone due to the dangerous nature of the work undertaken by it.’

MISSION MOTHER GANGA- THE GANGA POLLUTION CASE, (1988)

[M.C.Mehta v. Union of India, (1988) A.I.R. 1115, (1988) S.C.R. (2) 530]

In 1985, M.C.Mehta filed a Writ Petition in the form of Mandamus against eight-nine Respondents requesting the Supreme Court to order the leather tanneries of the Jajmau District of Kanpur to stop the disposal of untreated domestic and industrial waste in the holy river Ganga as it affected the lives of billions of people who lived along the banks of the river. He also claimed that the Kanpur Municipality, the Central Pollution Control Board, The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, and the Indian Standards Institute were equally responsible for the pollution as they had taken no effective measures to prevent the disposal f trade effluents into the holy river which is a lifeline for many.

The Court ordered in favour of the petitioner M.C.Mehta and held that the industries were responsible for all the disasters faced by the people and the river. The Court further held that henceforth industrial licenses would be issued to only those who had an appropriate plan for the treatment and discharge of waste. Strict action would be taken against the violators.

The Court also highlighted the responsibility of the state and the municipalities to create awareness on the prevention of water pollution.

THE RIVER BEAS CASE, (1997)

[M.C.Mehta v. Kamal Nath, (1997) 1 S.C.C. 388]

This case was filed when an article published by the Indian Express about a private company named Span Motels Private Ltd (The Motel Company) came to light. It was reported that Shri Kamal Nath, the then Minister of Environment and Forests had direct contacts with the said company. The article stated that the company had encroached upon some land of the River  Beds to beautify the motels. In September 1993, the illegal activities of the company led to floods in the river destroying a property worth Rupees One Hundred and Five Crores(105 crores).

The Supreme Court, in this landmark Judgment for the first time in the history of India established the ‘ ‘Polluter Pay Principle’, wherein the polluter was made responsible for the loss caused on account of the pollution. The Court asked the company to reverse the damage and pay a fine of Rupees Ten Lakhs as Exemplary Damages.

The Court also applied the  ‘Public Trust Doctrine’, which states that resources like air, sea, water, and forests are gifts of nature and everyone should get access to the same irrespective of the status in life.

A LAWYER BY PROFESSION, AN ENVIRONMENTALIST BY CHOICE

Sir M.C.Mehta has jubilantly brought environmental protection within the framework of the Indian Constitution. He has won several suits against hazardous industries. He has succeeded in obtaining an order from the Supreme Court to make lead-free Gasoline available. He even moved the Court to stop the operation of Brick Kiln Industries in Delhi which were reducing the fertility of the soil and also causing air and water pollution. In another instance, he petitioned the Supreme Court against the dumping of toxic metals by the Thermal Power Plants and Mines in the Singhrauli belt. He produced several scientific reports before the Court which stated that people in this area had Mercury in their food, milk, vegetables, hair, and nails. He is also successfully working towards banning rigorous Shrimp Farming and other disastrous activities carried along India’s 7,000 Kilometer coast.

M.C.Mehta has achieved his target of bringing in numerous environmental policies in the country. He has stressed upon creating environmental awareness through various domains like campaigns, seminars, panel discussions, debates, conferences, and also including it as a subject in the school curriculum. He is currently running his own NGO, ‘The M.C.Mehta Environmental Foundation’ which runs countless environmental justice campaigns and trains aspiring environmental attorneys and sentises them towards this important issue .

AWARDS AND PRIZES

M.C.Mehta has been a recipient of several prestigious awards for his immense contribution to the environment. In 1996, he was awarded the eminent Goldman Environmental Prize. Other awards include the UNEP Global 500 Award, Ramon Magsaysay Award, The Great Son of the Soil Award, Vasundhara Award, The Governor’s Gold Medal, People of the Year Award (LIMCA Book record), Kerry Rydberg Award for Environmental Activism, etc. In the year 2016, he was honored with the Fourth highest Civilian Award, Padma Shri from the Government of India.

ONE MAN WHO BROUGHT THE CHANGE

‘M.C.Mehta’, is a name enough to describe the Indian environmental jurisprudential scenario. There are very few people in the world today who selflessly exhibit their concern over the Environment. Mr.Mehta is one such son of the Indian Soil, who has worked dauntlessly and tirelessly over the years towards bringing a positive change. We need more gems like him to preserve and protect our environment. Let us all take a minute to salute the dedication and efforts of our very own Mahesh Chandra Mehta for his selfless service towards nature.

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