M.C. Mehta v. Union of India

Dec 15, 2020

The case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India relates to the large-scale problem of environmental pollution. The Court in its order dated 4.11.2019, recognizes the level of pollution in the Delhi NCR region and its sharp rise at certain times of the year and the inaction of authorities concerning the same. The issue of stubble burning by farmers in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, a major source of pollution, is taken up. Further, concerns regarding the Odd/Even scheme in Delhi were raised. Various other overwhelming factors such as construction and demolition activities, garbage burning and disposal, dust, etc., were noted by the Court. In the order dated 6.11.2019, financial support of Rs 100/- per quintal was directed to be given to farmers to achieve zero stubble burning. The Court also noted the absence of a proper garbage disposal system. In its order dated 13.11.2019, the Court takes up the grave concern of smog and enquires into the feasibility of smog towers. The amalgamation of the factors as mentioned earlier of pollution has led to this petition.                      

The issue was in the context of environmental protection whether the Directive Principles of State Policy are enforceable through Fundamental Rights under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution?

The fundamental right of right to life under Article 21 involves nature and the environment in its conception without which life cannot be enjoyed. The right to life and liberty includes the guarantee of a pollution-free environment. Thus, it has been held in the case of M.C. Mehta v Kamal Nath that any disturbance of the basic environmental elements such as air, water and soil that are necessary for life, would be hazardous for life within the meaning of Article 21.

The Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) provide that protection and improvement of the environment are duly enjoined on the Government as observed in the case of Tata Housing Development Co Ltd. V Aalok Jagga and Ors. Article 48A under the DPSP lays down that the State must endeavour to protect and improve the environment. Under Article 51(A)(g) of the Constitution, it is the fundamental duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment. The articles above are under Article 21; therefore, need to be looked at collectively. A collective appraisal would lend favour to the DPSP of protecting the environment to acquire an enforceable character. Collectively, the articles illustrate "The Precautionary Principle", now recognized as the law of the land. "The Precautionary Principle" makes it mandatory for the State Government to anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation.

In the context of the current judgement, Article 21 is the overarching right that is violated. As such, the particular DPSP that is enjoined on the Government makes a case for an obligation. The harmony of Article 48A with Article 21 and Article 51(a)(g), necessitates "The Precautionary Principle" given the immense danger of environmental degradation. Furthermore, the "Polluter Pays Principle" evolved by the Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath, applies to the given case. Here, damages may be awarded not only for the restoration of ecological balance but also to the victims of these disturbances.

The judgment in its second part addresses certain questions concerning preventive principle and sustainable development. Though the preventive approach is not mentioned in specific terms in judgments, all the statutory legislation has been a codification of the same, which also contains penal provisions. These preventive steps were taken here as well concerning stubble burning by farmers, due to which they were directed to pay a fine if they continue to burn stubble. But the question which the advocate raised was the right question in the direction of sustainable development as such a fine would hamper the working of the agricultural sector. In benefit of the small and marginal farmers, the Court ordered the State to help them procure necessary machines, which is a step in the right direction. It has been clearly stated in the case of Bahubali Stone Crusher and Ors. Vs. Rajasthan State Pollution Control Board and Ors that:

"While the State is required to encourage sustainable development of the State, it is equally essential to ensure a pollution-free environment for the people."

The same point has been reiterated in the present case. The Court took the same step concerning the control of vehicular pollution. However, the time is also ripe to make art. 51A(g) enforceable, so that everyone should care about the environment. In this process, the Court has linked art. 51A(g) with the precautionary principle and held to be an essential duty of the citizens which should come supplementary to their right to a pollution-free environment under art. 21. Though that would, in turn, take away the livelihood of multiple workers. Hence, even the concept of sustainable development should be included in the form of legislation with a proper procedure of calculating the required balance between preventive approach and sustainable development. It is equally the responsibility of the public to use public transport more often, to not pollute rivers or ponds, to use natural gas or diesel cars, only then can such a judgment meet its success. The State can also ensure this, but increasing the screening of vehicles, banning outdated ones, making the environmental auditing process more rigorous and to choose industrial locations after proper environmental audits. The law or Court is not opposed to development as seen in the case of Vijay Singh Punia vs Raj. State Board for the Prevention and Control of Water Pollution and Ors, but while the development meets the standards of the present, they should also be able to sustain the future.