Pollution and the rights of citizens

Print edition : December 09, 2000

The Supreme Court judgment on relocation of polluting industrial units in Delhi implies a skewed definition of the rights of citizens.

THE capital city of the country has experienced some turmoil in recent weeks, stemming in the immediate instance from the move to close or relocate a large number of industries defined as "polluting". As the order would affect the livelihood of 10 lakh t o 15 lakh workers who would be left with no material means of support, this has inevitably led to protest not only by such workers and their employers, but also by a wider section of sympathisers and human rights activists.

There is one strand of middle class reaction to these developments - which is also largely reflected in the print and visual media which cater to this class and the elite - which seeks to express the entire argument in terms of a fight between "green" en vironment-friendly citizens (the good guys) and dirty polluting industrialists (the bad guys, who could almost have stepped out of some children's cartoon). This position lauds the Supreme Court judgment for being forward-thinking even as it derides poli ticians for pandering to "special interest groups" such as petty industrialists and their workers.

Thus, the environmental activist and lawyer M.C. Mehta, whose original public interest petition can be said to have started this particular ball rolling, has declared that "the Supreme Court of India has played a dynamic role in evolving a judicial relie f system for environment protection and sustainable development in India". The capital's English-language media is abuzz with plaudits for such intervention, even as it insists on the rigorous enforcement of these decisions no matter what their costs in terms of lost employment and destruction of livelihoods of a very significant share of the city's population.

The current process effectively began in March 1995, when the Supreme Court issued orders to the Central Pollution Control Board, directing it to issue individual notices to some 8,378 units, indicating that "these industries have to stop functioning in the city of Delhi and be relocated elsewhere".

In July 1996, the Court directed that the time had come for the industries concerned to stop production and move out by the end of November that year. This referred to 168 industrial units in Delhi which were considered to be polluting and/or were operat ing in non-conforming areas in violation of the Master Plan of Delhi.

This judgment, which was passed by the Supreme Court without giving any proper hearing to the workers or their unions, provided for a mere one-year's wages as retrenchment benefit for the workers that they would be entitled to in case they could not be p rovided alternative employment in the new sites. Incidentally, the order also provided a land-use package wherein the owners would be able to retain 32 per cent of the real estate, with 68 per cent going to the government.

A revised judgment in December 1996 enhanced the retrenchment benefit to six-years' wages and made the availability of 32 per cent land to the owners conditional on actual relocation. The closure option was thus made more difficult, and the potential for and timing of relocation has subsequently become the focus of the debate between the Delhi State government and the Supreme Court.

There are many points of opposition to such a process, and several of these have been forcefully expressed by workers and their representatives, and even by the owners of units and politicians with an ear to the ground. The most significant of these rela te to the denial of the rights of workers to their livelihood, in the urge to ensure for some others a more "pollution-free" environment.

It has been pointed out that in Delhi, two-thirds of the atmospheric pollution is caused by vehicular traffic and the dominant part of the water contamination is caused by untreated sewage flowing into rivers and canals. It is therefore not just unfair t o make workers the prime victims of a sudden drive to clean up, it is also illogical and bizarre.

But even apart from these obvious and significant points, there are aspects of the judicial stress on relocation of polluting units, which are extremely puzzling from a basic human rights perspective. Take the idea of protection from atmospheric and wate r pollution. The judgment (and middle class support to it) implicitly seems to suggest that such pollution cannot be accepted in the deemed "residential" parts of Delhi - but that it is all right if it happens in other parts.

There is thus an obsession with the Master Plan of Delhi, an outdated and unsystematic plan which has continuously been outpaced by the reality of migration, population growth and actual urban expansion. This plan has become the tenuous base for a sweepi ng attempt at massive relocation which would - if fully implemented as stated - become a historically unprecedented forced migration.

Note that the judges have not demanded cleaner technology (which is actually available) so that such pollution does not occur at all or is reduced. Rather, they have simply demanded that the polluting units move, and go and do their noxious stuff elsewhe re. This clearly suggests that those residing in designated "residential area" - the middle and upper classes - deserve clean air and water more than those residing in less happily classified areas. There appears to be no judicial outrage or concern, for example, over the plight of the very large population of poor working people living in tenements in the Badarpur area (not classified as a residential areas despite its large resident population), which is surely one of the worst polluted zones of the c ity.

Similarly, the Supreme Court - which must after all take into consideration the interest of all the citizens of the country - seems to be especially concerned with the plight of those within the city who currently live near polluting units. What about th ose who live in or near the areas to which such industries are to be relocated? Are they not entitled to clean air and water?

Even more inexplicable is the court's apparent inability to consider the worst sufferers of industrial and other forms of pollution - the workers themselves. Surely it must be obvious that if a factory produces noxious gases and poisonous effluents, the most likely and immediate victims are the workers who are forced to spend many hours in such conditions, and who typically are also forced to live near the place of work in highly unsanitary conditions. What about their rights to a clean environment?

The untutored observer can be forgiven for thinking that somewhere in all this there is an implicit hierarchy of rights. What defines this hierarchy? It cannot be sheer number, for the number of workers and of the population affected adversely by such a judgment is very large indeed, while the number of those who would benefit may well be significantly smaller. Certainly location, or cartographic position, plays a role, since those who are lucky enough to live in "residential" colonies - even if there a re finally fewer people living in them than in "non-residential" areas - are given preference.

But underlying all this there may be the most significant hierarchy of all, that of class position. This defines how important it is for some people to have a clean and healthy environment, while the environment and even livelihood of many others is not seen as significant at all. Thus it is that we have a judiciary, English language media and a set of elite and middle class people that get extremely agitated about polluting units and want them all thrown out of the city, even as they themselves contrib ute to atmospheric pollution far more definitively by daily adding to the number of vehicles on the roads.

Of course, such an implicit hierarchical perception of the rights of citizens is not a new one - it has existed in many societies and cultures before. But it does sit uneasily in a society which claims to be democratic and universalist, and where the cou rts are meant to uphold a Constitution that enshrines the fundamental equality before law of all its citizens. And it exposes the unabashedly elitist base of some of this new-found upper class "green activism".

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