Mahesh Chandra Mehta
Mahesh Chandra Mehta is a public interest attorney from India. He was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1996 for his continuous fights in Indian courts against pollution-causing industries. He received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Asia for Public Service in 1997.
A lawyer by profession and a committed environmentalist by choice, he has made the fight to protect India's environment his unending mission. He has pioneered legal activism for environmental protection and is proof that one man can make a difference.
Born on 12 October 1946, Mehta hails from a small village in district Rajouri in the State of Jammu & Kashmir (India). It was here that his love for nature instilled in him a sense of commitment towards protecting the environment. He got his education up to primary level in his village Dhangri. Later, to get higher education he had to join school at Rajouri. For few years he travelled from his village to school and back by crossing two rivers and about 15 km. of distance every day. After his schooling at Rajouri he moved to Jammu and completed his postgraduation education in political science and law degree from Jammu University and started his practice in Jammu & Kashmir High Court. During his stay in Jammu, he took an active part in social and political issues. He raised his voice against corruption and motivated students and youth to fight against discrimination taking place with the Jammu region. He remained president of The Youth Action Committee and pioneered the social and political causes.
His career as a Supreme Court lawyer began in 1983, when he migrated to Delhi. In 1984, he began focusing on environmental litigation.
In the words of Ms Smita Gate "Often described as the One Man Enviro-legal Brigade, Mr Mehta is probably the only Supreme Court lawyer to have taken up legal cudgels with the polluting Indian Industries and come out victorious. A dedicated, fearless and extremely honest man, he pursues his goals with single-minded devotion. He has been conferred with several prestigious awards. Some of these are the Governor's Gold Medal, the Goldman Environmental Prize, considered on alternative Noble Prize in USA and Europe, the UN's Global 500 Award for 1993 and above all the Magsaysay Award for 1997. he is the men that helps to include the environmental science in all technical branch and he want that every educated person must know about our environment and they have to protect. Some of his early cases were discussed in Reader's Digest
1. UNEP GLOBAL 500 AWARD 1993.
2. THE GREAT SON OF THE SOIL Award 1993.
3. THE GOLDMAN ENVIRONMENTAL PRIZE for Asia ( 1996)
4. RAMON MAGSAYSAY Award for Asia for Public Service (1997)
5. ROTARY MANAV SEVA Award, 1997.
6. SEVA SHREE SAMMAN, 1997 for Social and environment work
7. VASUNDHARA, 1997 by Rotary Club of Dombivali Midtown.
8. PEOPLE OF THE YEAR Award 1998, LIMCA Book of Record.
9. KERRY RYDBERG AWARD for environmental activism, 1998 from Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, USA
10. He was a Keynote Speaker at various International Conferences on Environmental Law and Human Rights held at USA, Russia, UK, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Israel, Japan, Italy, Bhutan, Bangla Desh, South Africa, Australia and Canada.
M.C. Mehta’s public interest environmental litigation cases have formed the foundation for the development of environmental jurisprudence in India, and indeed, South Asia today. M.C. Mehta’s cases have established the following seminal principles in Indian environmental jurisprudence:
- The constitutional right to life extends to the right to a clean and healthy environment.
- Courts are empowered to grant financial compensation as a remedy for the infringement of the right to life.
- Polluters should be held absolutely liable to compensate for harm caused by their hazardous activities.
- Public resources that are sensitive, fragile or of high ecological value should be maintained and preserved for the public.
- Similarly, the government has a responsibility to prevent environmental degradation. Even if scientific uncertainty exists, the implementation of preventative measures should not be delayed wherever there is the possibility of serious or irreversible damage.
- Green benches should be established in Indian High Courts dealing specifically with environmental cases.
TAJ MAHAL CASE
Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world and the pride of India was facing serious threat from pollution caused by Mathura Refinery, iron foundries, glass and other chemical industries. As a result of very high toxic emissions from these industries, the Taj Mahal and 255 other historic monuments within the Taj trapezium were facing serious threat because of acid rain. The Petition was filed in the year 1984. The Supreme Court of India delivered a historic Judgement in December 1996. The apex Court gave various directions including banning the use of coal and coke and directing the industries to switch over to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).
GANGES POLLUTION CASE
Three landmark judgments and a number of Orders against polluting industries numbering more than fifty thousand in the Ganga basin passed from time to time. A substantial success has been achieved by way of creating awareness and controlling pollution in the river Ganges. In this case, apart from industries, more than 250 towns and cities have been ordered to put sewage treatment plants. Six hundred tanneries operating in highly congested residential area of Kolkata have been shifted out of the City and relocated in a planned Leather Complex in the State of West Bengal. A large number of industries were closed down by the Court and were allowed to reopen only after these industries set up effluent treatment plants and controlled pollution. As a result of these directions millions of people have been saved from the effects of air and water pollution in Ganga basin covering 8 states in India.
VEHICULAR POLLUTION CASE
Against vehicular pollution in India the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment in 1992. A retired Judge of the Supreme Court was appointed along with three members to recommend measures for the nationwide control of vehicular pollution. Orders for providing Lead free petrol in the country and for the use of natural gas and other mode of fuels for use in the vehicles in India have been passed and carried out. Lead-free petrol had been introduced in the four metropolitan cities from April 1995; all new cars registered from April 1995 onwards have been fitted with catalytic converters; COG outlets have been set up to provide CNG as a clean fuel in Delhi and other cities in India apart from Euro 2 norms. As a result of this case, Delhi has become the first city in the world to have complete public transportation running on CNG.
DELHI SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT CASE
About 10 million people living in Delhi and millions of people living along the banks of river Yamuna were exposed to health hazards from water contamination due to total absence of sewage treatment plant in many areas of Delhi. A time bound programme was given by the Supreme Court to the Delhi Municipal Corporation for setting up of treatment plant in 16 different localities in this case.
CHILD LABOUR CASE
By raising issue of exploitation of child labour in Sivakasi (Tamil Nadu) match and fireworks factories, more than one million children working in hazardous industries in Tamil Nadu and other States in India were benefited. Thus ambit of the case was widened to include child labour in the whole country. The Supreme Court directed all the States to identify children forced into labour and come out with schemes for their rehabilitation. Child labour in hazardous industries has been banned. In another case, 194 children illegally detained in different jails in Orissa were released.
ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS AND EDUCATION CASE
Succeeded in getting orders from the Court that all over the country the cinema theatres will exhibit two slides free of cost on environment in each show failing which their licenses will be cancelled, a minimum 5 to 7 minutes will be given by the television network in the country to televise programmes on environment apart from giving a regular weekly programme on environment. Environment has become a compulsory subject up to 12th standard from academic session 1992 and University Grants Commission will also introduce this subject in higher classes in different Universities.
DELHI RIDGE CASE
To save the Delhi ridge from destruction an order from the Supreme Court was obtained directing NCT of Delhi to declare it as 'Reserved Forest'.
DUST POLLUTION CASE
In a historic case, 212 stone crushers were shifted out of Delhi to a 'Crushing Zone' set up in Haryana by an order of the Supreme Court on 15 May 1992. Emission of more than 1500 tons of dust emitted daily in the atmosphere has been eliminated.
KAMAL NATH CASE
In the State of Himachal Pradesh, Span motel, owned by the family members of Shri Kamal Nath, Minister for Environment and Forests, Govt. of India diverted the Course of river Beas to beautify the motel and also encroached upon some forest land. The apex court ordered the management of the Span motel to hand over forest land to the Govt. of Himachal Pradesh and remove all sorts of encroachments. The Court delivered a landmark judgment and established principle of exemplary damages for the first time in India. The Court said that polluter must pay to reverse the damage caused by his act and imposed a fine of Rs Ten Lakhs (Rs 10,00,000) on the Span motel as exemplary damages. The Supreme Court of India recognised Polluter Pays Principle and Public Trust Doctrine.
COASTAL AREAS CASE
Despite Coastal Zone Regulation Notification of February 1991, none of the coastal states had formulated coastal zone management plan, with the result that haphazard construction and industrial activity was being permitted anywhere in the coast leading to large scale damage to coastal ecology and loss of livelihood to lakhs of fishermen and other indigenous communities dependent on marine resources. A writ petition was filed on behalf of Indian Council for Enviro- Legal Action (ICELA) and the Supreme Court delivered a landmark Judgement banning industrial/ construction activity within 500 mtrs of the High Tide Line and set a time limit for the coastal states to formulate coastal management plans.
ANTOP HILL CASE
In the heart of Mumbai at Antop Hill, a large-scale chemicals storage center for hazardous chemicals was being proposed to be set up flouting all environmental considerations and safety of more than 1.5 million people living in and around that area. A case was filed in the Supreme Court and timely action stopped the authorities/industries from locating such godowns.
GAMMA CHAMBER CASE
Due to filing of case against radiation from a Gamma Chamber, students and teachers in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi were saved from hazardous radiation.
GROUND WATER POLLUTION CASE
In Rajasthan at Bichhri, 5 small chemical industries, owned by a single owner, were operating without effluent treatment plant. Toxic effluents from the industries entered the ground water and wells of 14 villages became affected. After six years of battle in the Court, the Supreme Court delivered a Judgement in March 1996 directing the closure of the factories and attached the property of the polluter and directed the Department of Environment and Forests Govt. of India to recover the cost of eco- restoration from the industries held responsible for causing damage to the environment.
GROUND WATER DEPLETION CASE
Unsystematic and unscientific tapping of groundwater all over the country had led to alarming fall in the levels of groundwater and data provided by Ground Water Board showed a near crisis situation developing in many areas of the country. Further, the contamination of ground water due to indiscriminate discharge of toxic effluents on the ground and surface water bodies was going on in an unchecked and uncontrolled manner and pollution control Boards were not in a position to either assess the extent of ground water contamination or identify the sources of contamination. The ground water board had no teeth or legal authority to take action against offending parties. This matter was taken up in the Supreme Court and vide an historic Judgement, Ground Water Board had been made into an AUTHORITY invested with legal powers under the Environment Protection Act 1986 to issue licenses and take action against polluters even to the extent of closing down of offending industries.