In defence of judicial activism

Published : Dec 09, 2000 00:00 IST

Supreme court advocate and environmental activist Mahesh Chander Mehta, whose 1985 public interest petition in the Supreme Court has resulted in the orders to relocate polluting industries in Delhi, finds the legal battle to be an unequal and prot racted one. Recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award 1997 for public service, Mehta's contribution to creating environmental awareness is widely recognised. However, his crusade against environmental pollution has earned him many critics. In this interview to V.Venkatesan, Mehta defends his case and blames the political class for Delhi's urban chaos.

Your case against the polluting industries has resulted in serious social unrest and disruption of law and order.

It is all unjustified. Such things should not have happened. What happened was at the behest of politicians. When the first Delhi Master Plan (1962) was formulated, there were less than 20,000 industrial units in residential areas. The Master Plan requir ed that all these industrial activities should move out of Delhi. This could have been done earlier. Having not done this, the authorities could have at least disallowed any new industrial activity in residential areas in violation of the Master Plan. Bu t the Centre, which had responsibility over Delhi in the 1960s and 1970s, allowed and even encouraged mushroom growth of such industries in violation of the Delhi Development Act, 1957, the Delhi Master Plan, the Water Pollution Act, 1974, the Air Pollut ion Act, 1981, the Environment Protection Act, 1986, and the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957.

Is not the Delhi Master Plan outdated?

It is not. There was nothing outdated either in the first Master Plan (1962-1981), or the second Master Plan (1990-2001). In fact, Delhi could have become a model for the entire country if there was strict adherence to its Master Plan. If you propose to amend the plan, what message are you sending?

Why do the courts require the polluting industries to be shifted to Delhi's neighbourhood? If Delhi is entitled to a pollution-free environment, so are its surrounding areas. Residential areas have come up at places where the relocation of the units has been recommended.

If you have separate industrial estates, you can control industrial activity. You can try to ensure that norms governing environment protection, such as proper garbage disposal and treatment plants, are enforced strictly. Industries flouting the law can be identified. If industrial activity is spread all over Delhi, officials connive and violators of such norms go scot-free. In Delhi, polluting industries have led to a rise in diseases, and in noise pollution.

Studies have shown that bulk of Delhi's pollution is caused by vehicular pollution. Can the court not address this issue first, rather than insist on relocating existing industries?

Delhi has to be decongested. Delhi today is a fragile city, and it has to survive. You have to see that its infrastructure remains intact. You have to ensure that its roads do not have too much pressure of vehicles. If these polluting industries were clo sed two decades ago, or even a decade ago, the vehicle population would have been far less today. Industries require raw materials, and these have to be transported. This leads to vehicle movement. Besides, workers require transport to commute between th eir homes and places of work. While vehicular pollution is a major threat, it is the cumulative impact of water, air and noise pollution that we need to address. The city has to be seen as a whole. Delhi's Ridge has been encroached upon. Industrial devel opment is all right, but it should be planned, so that it does not choke the city and does not hurt the welfare of its citizens.

The court has done much to control vehicular pollution. The introduction of Euro I and Euro II standards, catalytic convertors, and the ban on commercial vehicles that are more than 15 years old were all results of Supreme Court directives. However, I ag ree that there is still a need to introduce cleaner technology, and be a strong movement to improve the public transport system. But why should a citizen have to go to court every time to achieve these? Has the government collapsed?

Your first petition in the case was filed in 1985. How did it take so long to reach this stage?

In 1985, my petition demanded the closure of stone crushers, which caused dust pollution, affecting half a million people. More than 2,000 tonnes of dust was being emitted into the air. However, I had drawn the court's attention to the violation of all r elevant laws and the Master Plan. In 1992, the court acted on my petition, and ensured the closure and relocation of 300 stone crushers outside Delhi.

Then I petitioned the court, through interlocutory applications, against the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and other agencies for allowing pollution of the Yamuna. Seventy-five per cent of the effluents were being discharged into the Yamuna and they wer e not doing anything. In 1994-95, the Supreme Court ordered that at 16 places in Delhi, effluent treatment plants should be set up. Now, the plants have come up at 13 places and construction is going on at three more places. The court continues to monito r the progress in this case.

The court ordered stoppage of encroachment on the Ridge. It also ordered that the Ridge should be declared a reserve forest. That was also an outcome of the writ petition. Many areas that come under the Ridge were thus freed from encroachment.

The court then took up the issue of the hazardous industries, which were not allowed in 1962 by the Master Plan. Some 1,325 industries were identified, and the Supreme Court ordered their closure in phases. The issue of polluting industries in residentia l areas was taken up, because in this case, the Delhi government did not even have an inventory of such industries. So the court passed orders in 1995, that the government should do a full survey of the industries or such activities in the residential ar eas. The survey was carried out by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.

The DPCC told the court that about 93,000 industries were located in residential areas. The court directed the government to ensure wide publicity in the media asking these industries, to relocate or close down, and apply before a high-power committee, w hich was duly constituted by the Chief Secretary of the Delhi government, for licence to run an industry. Under the Master Plan, you could run an industry if you have five workers, one kW of electricity and 30 sq m of ground floor area, provided the indu stry is approved.

About 51,000 industries applied for permission, 95 per cent of whom were found ineligible to stay in residential areas. The court took a compassionate view and wanted to protect the livelihood of the workers and the interests of those suffering because o f pollution, and asked the government to give such industries space outside Delhi. For those industries that did not apply for permission and were unwilling to relocate, the court set a January 1, 1997 for closure. But this did not happen. It is for the government to ensure that the workers who are retrenched or relocated get due compensation, and whenever such violations of court's orders were brought to its notice the court took cognisance of it and issued directions.

When the Delhi government sought time to purchase lands to relocate these units, the court agreed and asked the government to submit quarterly reports about the progress in complying with the court's orders. In 1998, I pointed out to the court that the r eports were very sketchy and repetitive. In September 1999, the court heard the case again and fixed the deadline of December 31, 1999. Now, almost a year has passed, but nothing has happened. Therefore the court was compelled to issue contempt notice in November to the Chief Secretary, Delhi government.

Is there an implicit assumption in the Supreme Court's orders that Delhi is special and that there is no harm if the polluting industries are relocated elsewhere?

I am also against pampering Delhi. But here the objective of relocating polluting industries is to check migration to Delhi. As per the National Capital Region Planning Act, 1985, the National Capital Region Planning Board has to ensure that industrial a ctivities are shifted from Delhi to the satellite towns. Enforcing stringent norms are all right, but Delhi no longer has the infrastructure for them.

Will judicial activism help achieve a pollution-free environment?

No, the court has not crossed its limits. It only asks the authorities concerned not to violate the law, but to enforce it. When the executive and the legislature fail to give relief, a citizen has no recourse but to go to the court. Why did the Chief Se cretary not hold an inquiry, as directed by the court, against officials who erred in not enforcing the Master Plan? It is an unequal battle against those who have the power and the money. There is no political accountability.

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