The judicial intervention

Print edition : December 09, 2000

ANGERED over the Delhi administration's delay in shifting nearly one lakh polluting industrial units from the national capital's residential areas, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justice B.N. Kirpal, Justice Doraiswamy Raju and Justi ce Brijesh Kumar issued notice on November 14 to Delhi Chief Secretary P.S. Bhatnagar and the Commissioner of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi S.P. Aggarwal asking them why they had not complied with its orders to shut down such units. It said: "By ena cting the law and framing of Master Plan for Delhi and then knowingly allowing the same to be violated only encourages lawlessness."

This followed the government's inability to meet the deadline fixed by the court in 1996 and 1999 to take action against the polluting units. In its order issued on April 19, 1996, in response to a public interest petition filed by advocate and environme ntal activist M.C. Mehta, the court had held that those industries that had not obtained permission from the high-power committee constituted for the purpose should stop operating in residential areas from January 1, 1997. It was revealed to the court th en by the authorities that there were 93,000 industries in Delhi, the majority of them in non-conforming zones, or residential areas.

In its order issued on December 18, 1996, the court agreed that the Delhi government could consider the question of granting more time to the polluting industries to relocate. It said: "The government having now taken up the matter seriously,it is time f or this court to step aside... and leave the field for the government to act on its own and relocate the industries in accordance with the plan formulated by this Court."

"Even otherwise, it is the function of the State government to keep the city free from pollution and also to enforce the Master Plan, 2001," the court noted, hinting that it could not assume the role of the executive by insisting on sticking to the stipu lated time-frame.

However, the court did not abdicate its monitoring role, and asked the National Capital Territory, the Delhi administration, file quarterly progress reports from March 1997. The court had expressed satisfaction that the Delhi administration was seriously processing the project of relocation and that the industries were also cooperating. Explaining the rationale of its intervention in the matter, it said: "Keeping in view the right to life guaranteed under the Constitution, and also taking into considera tion the statutory provisions regarding pollution control, this court stepped in to assist the State government in restoring the damaged environment in the city of Delhi." By acquiring 1,400 acres of land to relocate the industries, the Bharatiya Janata Party government headed by Sahib Singh Verma had convinced the Supreme Court about its 'sincerity', and thus staved off a crisis.

The November 14 contempt notice revealed that the satisfaction the court expressed with regard to the Delhi government's seriousness about speedy and effective relocation of the polluting industries, in its December 18, 1996 order, was perhaps misplaced. The Delhi government had repeatedly extended the deadline to complete the process and it could not convince the court that it had made progress in developing alternative sites for relocation. On September 8, 1999, the court fixed December 31, 1999 as t he deadline for the closure or relocation of the units. This deadline was also not met.

Meanwhile, the court appointed the Union Urban Development Ministry as the nodal agency to implement its orders. On November 14, the court observed that the nodal agency was a disappointment. "It was the Delhi government which was the authority to implem ent the court's orders and mere identification of land for shifting of the industries was no answer to the order of the court for shifting the polluting industries," it said. The court said that since the orders were flouted, it was left with no alternat ive but to take action for non-compliance.

However, the court heard conflicting arguments on who should be held guilty for the non-compliance. Additional Solicitor-General Kirit Raval, representing the Centre, blamed the Delhi government for its tardy efforts to close down the industries. The Del hi government had not issued an ordinance for the registration of the industrial units so that the Urban Development Ministry would act as the catalyst in the matter, he said.

The State government denied the charge, claiming that it had extended full cooperation to the nodal agency. Senior counsel for the Delhi government, K.K. Venugopal, argued that relocation was a massive exercise that would not be complete before 2002. He pleaded that it was not possible to remove all polluting units without providing them alternative sites.

The Bench expressed its sympathy for the workers, who faced problems of relocation, but maintained that as most of them were migrants they would not have any objection to shifting. "It is only the industrialists who are not keen on shifting their industr ies. Their attitude has set at naught the whole concept of the NCR," the Bench pointed out.

Venugopal told the court that there was no wilful disobedience by the Chief Secretary in not implementing the court's orders, and sought the court's permission to go ahead with the government's plan to complete the relocation by 2002. The proposed action plan covered only about 50,000 industries. The Delhi government, he told the court, had no option but to close down the remaining 47,000-odd industries which showed no inclination to shift, but in a phased and peaceful manner. He also sought the court's consent for the proposal to regularise industries located in non-conforming areas.

The Centre told the court that it could not agree with the Delhi government's proposal for the conversion of a large number of residential colonies into industrial areas, that too on the basis of a survey conducted by two or three officers of the Industr ies Department of Delhi.

While in December 1996 the Supreme Court had clearly expressed a wish to step aside and leave the task to the government to clean up Delhi, it now appears that its monitoring role has not ended, although it has proved largely ineffective so far.

The judiciary is seen to have adopted an interventionist role in the matter in a context of lack of cohesion in the federal set-up. This fact has been apparent in the ongoing case where the Delhi government blamed the Union Urban Development Ministry and its agency, the Delhi Development Authority, for not coming forward with a solution to the problem. The Centre admitted that it came into the picture only after it was asked to function as a nodal agency.

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