Indian Council For Enviro-Legal Action v. Union Of India

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Bench Comprised Of

  1. Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy
  2. Justice B.N. Kirpal

Parties Name

Petitioners– Indian Council for Enviro-legal Action and others 

Respondents– Union of India and others

Introduction

The environment is a significant part of one’s life. It plays a pivotal role in healthy living and existence of life on this blue planet. Usually, the environment is regulated by various laws which help to protect land, air and water. If there is any negligence on the part of humans, such people are treated by these laws. So, environmental laws and regulations are imperative to punish those who are irresponsible towards the environment. One of these environmental regulations is the Polluter Pays Principle. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development introduced this principle in 1972. 

According to this principle, any cost incurred concerning pollution and the consequences of such pollution shall make the polluter liable for the same. This principle resulted from the dire need of policies and strategies that could result in controlling pollution and preserving the environment from the pollution caused by industrial development. The development of this principle proved to be an achievement when a large number of cases were instituted applying the Polluter Pays Principle. Here, we will be discussing one of the many such cases.

Facts of the Case

This[1] case revolves around the Bichhri village in Udaipur district of Rajasthan. The northern part of this village has been established as an industrial complex. Some of the well-known plants such as Hindustan Zinc Limited and several other Chemical plants have occupied the village. They are readily using it as their land of making money rather than considering it a habitation of thousands of people.

An environmental association named the Indian Council for Environment Legal Action, expressing concern and realizing the problems of the local people filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India for the predicament of the people living in pathetic conditions and solicited remedies for them. They mainly emphasized on the fact that such industrial owners are opportunistic as they recognize these opportunities of causing pollution in such areas as a means to increase their margins of profit and neglect the problems caused to inhabitants or the environment. 

In this case, the respondents were producing chemicals without having proper pieces of equipment for the treatment of highly toxic effluent that were discharged by them. This discharge, however, resulted in making the water unfit for consumption and such ill-treatment was a significant concern for spreading diseases, causing deaths and disaster in the Bichhri village. The industrial establishments were highly negligent in disposing of the sludge instead of throwing them in the open field. 

However, this sludge gets accumulated and begins to drain into the ground causing the water to get polluted. The wells and streams’ water became so polluted that it started to turn dark in colour. This problem caused an unpleasant situation in the village and not only water but also the soil began to deteriorate, making it impossible for the villagers to cultivate. This further caused a fuss among the village people because cultivation was the primary source of their livelihood. One could even consider the water and soils, but how can someone accept that their near ones were losing their lives and others were affected with diseases. 

Out of the many respondents, the following points enlist the primary problem-causing respondents:

  1. Hindustan Agro Chemicals Limited (Fourth Respondent) – This industry began manufacturing a concentrated sulphuric acid ‘Oleum’ along with a single super-phosphate.
  2. Tata Silver Chemicals (Fifth Respondent) – This industry was a catastrophe to the local people as it began the manufacturing of ‘H’ acid, a very poisonous compound, majorly for export purposes.
  3. Jyoti Chemicals (Eighth Respondent) – This chemical industry produced ‘H’ acid mostly and some other toxic chemicals. 
  4. Other industries were also established, which were producing toxic chemicals contributing to pollution in the village. 

The Court expressed grievous concern in this issue and requested the concerned authorities to conduct a survey and submit the reports. This report was a red alert as it exhibited 2440 tons of sludge generated by these chemical industries. The Parliament and the Ministers also expressed severe concern over this vandalism to the environment. They ensured that pertinent action shall be taken against the polluters, but nothing could be pulled off them. As a result, the villagers came down to roads, protesting against the production of ‘H’ acid which was the major effluent and this assertion of the people led to the District Magistrate imposing Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code in the Bichhri village and thereby, shutting down the industries. 

Issues Of the Case

  • Whether the industries fabricating toxic chemicals had taken any measures to safeguard the environment or not?
  • Whether the respondent is liable to pay the sum of money necessary to carry out the corrective or remedial measures?
  • Does the rule of absolute liability established in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher apply to this case?

Arguments by Petitioner

After the institution of the case and identifying the facts in issue, the proceedings started with the parties contending their points of concern. The points argued by the petitioner are enlisted here:

  • The Respondents started producing harmful chemicals like ‘H’ acid in the same complex in Bichhri village.
  • That the manufacturing process of these harmful substances led to the formation of poisonous effluents, particularly generating sludge.
  • That the industries never treated the sludge adequately and mover over contributed to the pollution of air, soil, water and contamination of numerous other environmental resources. 
  • That the level of pollution had increased in the surroundings because of which the industries had to be closed down instantly.
  • All the respondents had requested for a ‘No Objection Certificate’ for the manufacturing of the hazardous chemicals, though the concerned authorities had dismissed the request. This dismissal in itself is evidence of how much contribution this manufacturing of chemicals can lead to environmental degradation.
  • That the manufacturing by these chemical industries should be suspended until the effluents are adequately treated as a result of reducing damage to the environment and its resources. 

Arguments by Respondent

After the petitioner argued and presented its prominent concerns, the court also gave the other party a chance to present counter arguments.

The arguments on behalf of Hindustan Agro Chemicals Limited are as follows:

  • They have filed a counter-affidavit as per which the plant had been granted by the Pollution Control Board for the production of alumina sulphate and sulphuric acid.
  • That the board had given the permission by imposing certain conditions.
  • That the board had issued a ‘No Objection Certificate’ under the major Acts Air (Pollution Prevention and Control) Act, 1981 and Water (Pollution Prevention and Control) Act, 1974 post which they had begun the production of the objectionable chemicals like Oleum and Single Super Phosphate rather than producing sulphuric acid.
  • That most of the toxic substances are resistant in nature which makes the treatment of effluents quite difficult. 

Judgment of the Case

After considering the facts and findings, the division bench gave its judgment on April 11, 1997. The apex court relied on the judgment of MC Mehta v. Union of India[2] (Oleum Gas Leak Case), which is responsible for the evolution of absolute liability in India. The court also applied the Polluter Pays Principle which talks about remedying damage caused by the polluter oneself or undoing the damage caused to the environment by a person in pursuance of one’s activities by the person oneself and not the government or any other authority. The court applied this rule in the instant case and held the respondents negligent and absolutely liable. 

The court ruled out the following essential points:

  1. The apex court held that the industries were ‘State’ under Article 12 of the Constitution of India and stated that if any private corporate body infringes a person’s fundamental rights, the court will consider it as a ‘State’.
  2. The court stated that if the government and the concerned authorities are negligent in taking the necessary preventive steps and actions required by the law, then the duty lies upon the court to intervene in such issues. Thus, the writ is maintainable in this case.
  3. The court ordered the industries to deposit the penalties. The industries were ordered to pay a sum of Rs. 37, 385, 000/- along with compound interest at a rate of 12% per annum following April 11, 1997 till the total sum is recovered. Further, the industries were ordered to reimburse the litigation charges for deliberately wasting the time of the court for fifteen years. Not only this, but the court also ordered the respondent industries to pay Rs. 10,00,000 in order to take remedial measures in Bichhri village as well as other nearby areas of Udaipur district.
  4. The court further ordered the closure of all the industrial plants owned by Respondent No. 4 to 8 located in and around the Bichhri village. It directed Rajasthan State Pollution Control Board to seal all the plants and factories owned by the former respondents. 

It is important to note that the court implemented the Polluter Pays Principle, which attracts any person conducting any harmful activity, irrespective of the fact that such person has taken any precautionary measure or not. The polluter not only compensates but also pays the expenses incurred in the restoration of environmental degradation.

Analysis of the Judgment

The judgment passed by the division bench is quite palpable and felicitous, though the execution of such orders was far from possible. This case is an extraordinary one as even after the apex court’s final judgment, the respondents managed to continue the litigation for a period of 15 years by filing multiple interlocutory applications to keep away from complying with the orders of the court. The litigants, as a result, kept procuring benefits from the pendency of a case.

But, as it is said that nothing lasts for long, so after the writ petition issued by the environmental organization, the Court gave certain guidelines and the previous orders had to be complied by the Respondents. The compendious order passed by the Supreme Court protected the interest of the people and their fundamental rights from being infringed.

Now, talking about the quantum of compensation levied on the Respondents and the use of principles. The court was very accurate in applying the Polluter Pays Principle or the rule of absolute liability. While looking from the aspect of this concept, the penalty levied by the court is equal to the harm caused. The court similarly directed a proportional amount looking forward to the damage caused, the delay of 15 years and the interest amount.

Thus, despite addressing all the aspects of the case and providing adequate compensation, can we still say that the judgment was favoring the people of Bichhri village and had served its purpose?

Conclusion

This case of Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India is an example of justice delayed is justice denied. The villagers and the surrounding people were in dire need of remedial measures to be provided by the court. The evidence and the previous reports were a clear indication of the problem and the disastrous situation in which the people of Bichhri village were living. 

However, still there were no measures to keep a check on the chemical industries post decision of the Supreme Court. The Respondents were so powerful that they kept filing interlocutory applications and kept themselves from obeying the orders of the court. So, we really need a well-structured law that protects the victim from such dominance. Thus, the only aim of the Hon’ble court while deciding the compensation should be that no party should be at loss and the sufferer must be proportionally compensated for the harm done to him and last but not the least, the polluter must be discouraged from performing such harmful acts in the future.


[1] Indian Council For Enviro-Legal Action v. Union Of India, 1996 A.I.R. 1446.

[2]  (1987) 1 SCC 395.

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