The Multinational Monitor



Harnessing the Law
To Clean Up India

An Interview
with M.C. Mehta

M.C. Mehta is a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India. He is general secretary of the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action, a voluntary environmental-protection organization in India.

Multinational Monitor: Could you describe the case you brought to clean up the Ganges river?

Mehta: In 1985, I learned that the Ganges caught fire near Haridwar, one of the holiest pilgrim centers in India, where every Hindu desires that their last rites be performed. Two factories were discharging effluents into the Ganges, and the effluents were so toxic that, in 1984, somebody put a lit match into the river by chance and a whole one-kilometer stretch of the Ganges caught fire. The fire went 20 feet high and could not be extinguished for three hours.

I became alarmed when I heard about this. So I went to the area and examined it. I learned that there were many people who had become sick from using or drinking the river's contaminated water. I filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India in 1985 against these two polluting factories.

The scope of the case has now been broadened to such an extent that all the industries and all the municipal towns in the river basin - from the beginning to the end of the Ganges - are parties. The Supreme Court has directed more than 5,000 factories to install air and water pollution control devices. In the last few years, the Supreme Court has even ordered a few hundred factories which did not comply with the Court's order to close until they installed pollution control devices and meet prescribed standards.

MM: What was the legal basis for demanding that the river be cleaned up?

Mehta: In India, we are fortunate that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution gives the Right to Life. The Supreme Court of India has broadened the scope of this Right to Life to include the right to live in a healthy environment. The right to live in a healthy environment implies access to clean air and water. If I am breathing unclean air, or drinking contaminated water, I cannot live a healthy life. Pollution is thus a threat to life. And if there is a threat to life, a citizen can go to court and file a petition.

MM: Has that broad scope subjected Article 21 to attack from business interests?

Mehta: It is not an easy thing to file a case under Article 21. Environmental cases are not easily drafted; you need a lot of experience, you have to go into the field for researching and collecting information. You have to substantiate everything with scientific reports and data. The Court will only intervene after you have fulfilled these stringent requirements.

MM: What is the next step in the Ganges case?

Mehta: It is a really big problem now. Many parts of the Ganges river are totally dead; the water is so polluted that it is unfit for drinking, washing, bathing or irrigational purposes. Thirty percent of the Ganges' pollution is being caused by industry. The Court has ordered the polluting factories to install pollution control devices, and many are now doing that. To a large extent, I have succeeded in seeing that industrial pollution is controlled.

But the major problem is the municipal corporations. Studies have concluded that 70 percent of the pollution in the river is caused by the cities and towns along the Ganges. These towns are discharging domestic waste straight into the Ganges. The municipal bodies say that they do not have money to treat the waste, and you can't close down a city. So this is a particular problem. My basic argument before the Court, which related to the municipal governments, is that the people must be involved in resolving this gigantic problem. If the government does not take the people into its confidence, then the government is not going to succeed.

Soon after the filing of the case, the Government of India initiated a Ganges Action Plan to clean the Ganges river and spent millions of dollars on this project. But it has failed. Even now, the Ganges river is as polluted as it was 10 years back. If the people's participation would have been there, the government could have succeeded in cleaning the Ganges river. The government should have given proper information and appealed to the people to take part in cleaning the Ganges river. Education and awareness building must be a continuous process. When a person goes to have a dip in the Ganges, at every place they should be given information and reasons for keeping the river clean. I think that millions and millions of people can be involved in the process of cleaning the river Ganges, which is very dear to every Indian.

MM: Could you describe the shrimp aquaculture case which you have brought in the Supreme Court?

Mehta: The prawn aquaculture case, filed in 1994, challenges the operation of prawn farms in the coastal areas, especially in Tamil Nadu, where they are destroying the local ecology. After four or five years, the lands where the prawn farms are located will become useless; it is very difficult to reclaim the land once it has been flooded and made into a prawn farm. First, the land becomes unfertile. Second, the land becomes saline. Third, the mangroves and other vegetation cover along the coastline are destroyed.

Community residents have undertaken a grassroots fight against the prawn companies. For the last three years, the people suffering from this activity have agitated, held nonviolent protests, sat in satyagrahas, and many activists have been arrested on a number of occasions.

These people came to me and asked for assistance. I went to Tamil Nadu, and collected facts. On the basis of all those facts, we filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India challenging the violations committed by the prawn companies. The Supreme Court directed scientists from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), a prestigious institute, to go and see the situation and report to the Court.

The NEERI scientists went there and examined the situation and concluded that the prawn farms are seriously degrading the environment. Their report concludes that this activity is more harmful than beneficial.

After NEERI submitted the report, the Supreme Court issued an order saying no more agricultural land or salt pans can be converted to prawn farming.

But the mangrove forests are still being destroyed all along the coastline. The trees are being cut, and the salinity is increasing in those waters, and the people have even lost their drinking water sources.

The big multinational companies, in conjunction with Indian businessmen, have set up these prawn farms without taking any precautionary measures to control pollution. They have destroyed thousands of acres of land in this area, which is all along the nine coastal states in India.

The prawns are exported to the United States, Japan and other countries. The argument is being made that India needs foreign exchange, and that the prawn farming benefits India because it brings in foreign exchange. But I think that U.S. citizens should boycott such things, particularly from India. The prawns may be a delicacy for U.S. citizens who are eating them, but this delicacy is depriving the livelihood and bringing untold suffering to thousands of fishermen and other people who have become victims of serious pollution and environmental degradation caused by the prawn industries. The people who have lived for centuries in these areas are being displaced.

MM: What has been the reaction to the Court order?

Mehta: The Supreme Court order is an interim one, with the final hearing on the matter set for August 1995. Because the multinationals have a lot of money, they feel they can do anything. The rich multinationals and big business housed in India have started a campaign to portray prawn farming as a very good activity. They are hiring consultants and scientists and are trying to say that prawn farming will generate employment in the country and help poor people.

MM: Could you describe the Taj Mahal case?

Mehta: I filed the Taj Mahal case, my first environmental case, in 1984. In a social gathering, somebody came to me and told me that the Taj Mahal is a dying monument which no one is taking care of. At that time, frankly, I had not seen the Taj Mahal at all. I asked my acquaintance to send me information. I started reading books on Taj Mahal. It was an eye-opening experience to learn how beautiful the monument is, and then also that it was in danger of being lost - how the marble was yellowing and losing its luster - because of pollution and regulatory negligence. So I drew up the petition and filed it in the Supreme Court.

In 1984, the Supreme Court issued notice in this case. The Court finally started hearing the case in 1992, and has issued various order to factories to control pollution in the area of the Taj Mahal. There are 2,354 polluting factories in Taj Trapezium - a 10,400 square kilometer area around the Taj Mahal which has been declared an ecologically-fragile area - including the Mathura Refinery, which is a major polluter, chemical factories and brick kilns. Two hundred and twelve factories were closed down at one time.

MM: When you handle cases that require factories to close or move, what sort of relations do you have with the workers in those factories?

Mehta: When the factories are closed down because they are not controlling pollution, the management tells the workers that they will be losing their jobs. But the Court has many times said that it is not workers' fault when a factory is required to close until it installs pollution control devices. The Court has also said that no worker will go unemployed, that they must be paid all their wages while the factory is closed.

The pollution is also affecting the health of the workers. Management is totally irresponsible in seeing that health and safety requirements are observed. As a result, occupational diseases in this country have increased manyfold in recent years.

I am concerned about the health of the people. When I address the Court, I say that pollution is not only affecting the people living in the factories' vicinity but it is also affecting the health of the workers. I am not only fighting for the people who are living in the residential areas, I am also fighting for the workers.

MM: For how long?

Mehta: So long as they don't put in pollution control devices. If the industry cannot put up for another six months, it should pay - because it is not the fault of the workers. Who is the lawbreaker? The lawbreaker is management, not the worker. The worker is innocent. So not in one, but in a number of cases, the Court has said the workers should be paid because it is not their fault, and it has been done.

MM: But what happens if a company says respecting the pollution-control standard is so costly that it will put the company out of business?

Mehta: Here in India, there is a principle, and that principle has been laid down by the Supreme Court. In one of the Ganges judgments, the Court ordered 29 factories in Kanpur to be closed down, and there was a hue and cry that the workers will go unemployed if the industries are closed. The Court dealt with that question by saying that, if an industry cannot pay minimum wages, it has no right to exist. Similarly, if industry cannot put in pollution control devices, it has no right to exist.

MM: Was Article 21 part of that, too?

Mehta: Yes.

MM: How well equipped is India to deal with a flood of foreign investment?

Mehta: India is already suffering from an environmental crisis. Now is the time to save the country. We should learn lessons from the Western countries, and not repeat their mistakes. We should control pollution at the source, so that problems don't emerge later on.

Unfortunately, the Indian Government and the pollution control boards and enforcement authorities do not take action against the polluters. As a result, Indian rivers and lakes are polluted, and even the groundwater sources in many places have become highly contaminated.

The multinationals which are now coming to this country should be more responsible in controlling the pollution. Unfortunately, they are behaving atrociously. When they are in the United States, Germany or any other Western country, they observe the laws, but once they come over here, they pollute and ignore all laws. If these multinationals are polluting in this country, the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] - like Greenpeace and others - should pressure them in their home countries. That is the only way that they won't pollute.

We don't want development not to take place. Development should take place. But development should not take place at the cost of human suffering and human life.

MM: Given India's history, with the strong Gandhian legacy, and the deep distrust of industrialization and foreign business inscribed in the country's culture, why is there not a more developed opposition to the government's new economic plan, and to the more general pitfalls of industrialization?

Mehta: Unfortunately, the government of India long ago adopted a lopsided policy favoring huge, capital-intensive industry, believing it would generate employment. We have a large population, and abundant manpower. We don't need big industries to come and use sophisticated technology. Here it should have been a village republic, meaning that as much power as possible should have been given to the smallest political units.

With a village republic, small-scale industries, like handicrafts and cottage industries, should have been encouraged. These villages and industries should then have been connected in a network that would make up the country. Instead, power is concentrated in the cities. As a result, electricity, water and other resources are being supplied to the cities at the expense of rural communities. Farmers and rural people are disenchanted, because the rural economy is suffering, and they are migrating to the cities.

As a result of the lopsided government approach, materialistic tendencies are increasing. The Indian concept of finding contentment with as little as possible and not desiring too many material things, has been undermined. A village republic would have been better able to preserve those values.

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