Environmental law is a branch of law that is not only held by its major Acts but also the case laws – in fact, many a time, it is these cases that had prompted the legislation into forming new laws or Acts to accommodate the changing needs of the contemporary times. On that note, several such cases had emerged as landmark judgements that not only affected the Indian scope of environmental law but the whole globe altogether.
In this article, we will discuss five such judgements that helped shape environmental law as we know it.
M.C. Mehta v/s Union of India (Taj Trapezium case)
With there been so many cases with similar petitioner and respondent, this case was more commonly known as the ‘Taj Trapezium Case’ due to it dealing with the trapezium-shaped area of about 10,400 sq. km around the monument of Taj Mahal in Agra. This area covers about five districts in the region of Agra and used to have a large amount of pollution emitting industries that caused corrosion of the marble of the Global Heritage Site.
Gases like Sulphur-dioxide and carbon monoxide were released by the nearby industries located in the Taj Trapezium, resulting in acid rain in the given region which caused the marble of the Taj Mahal to corrode and turn into a yellowish hue instead of its previous healthy white. In fact, in some places of the monument, the yellow spots had worsened into ugly black and brown spots.
This condition of a monument with international repute was noticed by the petitioner M.C. Mehta, a public interest litigator when he visited the monument on his last visit. So, upon such observation, he filed a petition in the Court, asking for some directions to be given to the respective authorities regarding effective measures to prevent the monument from further degradation.
After hearig the facts, the Supreme Court directed the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (U.P.P.C.B.) to make a report on all the factories in the area and to issue a notice to all of them regarding proper anti-pollution measures – which turned out to be a total number of five hundred eleven industries. Upon collection of such data, the Court further directed these industries to either adopt an anti-pollution approach or relocate themselves.
M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Oleum Gas leak case)
This is one of those cases that brought in a new concept in the Law of Tort. This case, due to the reoccurring theme of common petitioner and respondent as many other cases, is more commonly known as the ‘Oleum Gas leak’ case. The facts of the case start by not the incident itself, but rather the writ petition filed by the public interest litigator M.C. Mehta, who filed the petition upon noticing the fertilizer manufacturing industry named ‘Shriram Industries’ engaging in hazardous substances while being located in a densely populated area of Kirti Nagar, Delhi.
Since the Bhopal Gas Tragedy was still a very recent event, the petitioner filed the writ before the Court regarding the evidently dangerous circumstances. Unfortunately, while the petition was still pending, there was a leakage of oleum gas from the said industry, resulting in the death of an advocate and health issues to several others living nearby the region.
Due to this being the second incident of gas leak within the span of a year, the Court showed deep concern regarding the repetition of such incidents. To prevent these kinds of incidents in the future along with the prospect of compensating those who have been wrongly harmed, the Court evolved the rule of absolute liability on the rule of strict liability and stated that the defendant would be liable for the damage caused without considering the exceptions to the strict liability rule.
Such evolution was made due to the fact that the industries such as these opted for the exceptions of the strict liability, resulting in them washing their hands off the damage they caused while the ones wrongly harmed could do nothing as technically the industries did not directly have a hand such incidents. Absolute liability, however, did not allow that – instead, holding the industries liable without any exceptions. This rule laid down in the oleum gas leak case was also followed by the Supreme Court while deciding on the case of Bhopal Gas Tragedy case.
Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs Union of India
This is a landmark judgement where the principle of sustainable development was adopted by the Supreme Court as a balancing concept, rejecting the old ideology that development and environmental protection cannot go hand in hand. The facts of this case start with the petition filed by Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum against the certain tanneries in Tamil Nadu who were discharging untreated effluent from their tanning into the river Palar whose water was used for irrigation by several agricultural fields along with other roadsides and waterways as open lands.
Upon hearing all the facts and how water pollution is affecting several people’s livelihood, the Supreme Court critically analysed the relationship between development and the environment and issued several comprehensive directions for maintaining the standards given by the Pollution Control Board.
M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath
This is one of the landmark judgements where the Court analysed the concept of private ownership and whether forest areas and other wildlife aspects should be even considered to be privately owned. The facts of the case start from when the printed media ‘The Indian Express’ published an article regarding the construction of a Resort on the land near river Beas that included the forest region near the said river.
This Resort had been constructed by a private company named the Span Motels Private Ltd with which the Minister of Environment and Forests, Kamal Nath, had a direct relation and share in. This construction included the redirection of the river Beas, which resulted in the floods due to all the river water – a disaster that caused the destruction of property worth Rs. 105 crores.
The Court held that the forest regions in the nation could not be privately owned – they were public property and thus, should be considered as Government property. This was backed by the principle of ‘Doctrine of Public Trust’ which states that certain resources like air, water, forests, etc that are common and needed for the basic necessities should not be under private ownership; but rather held by the State for the use of the general public. In addition to that, the Court not only quashed the lease of the forest and river area under the Motel Company but also held that the construction done by the company was not justified; thus, ordering them to compensate the damage they caused to both the property as well as the ecology of the area.
M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (CNG Vehicular Case)
India’s increased a lot since the time of the nation’s independence – so much so, that the Capital city (Delhi) which initially started out with a population of only five lakhs is now over ninety lakhs. Due to this amount of increase in population, the usage of vehicles and other transportation increased as well – making the emission of air pollutants increase tremendously. Based on this fact, M.C. Mehta filed a petition to request the Court to establish new guidelines to contain the air pollution caused due to vehicular emission in Delhi.
The Court held the petitioner’s worry valid and observed that appropriate steps are needed to be taken as a precaution to avoid further pollution. With that, the Court applied the doctrine of ‘Precautionary Principle’ and observed that any auto-policy made by the government should adopt that principle as well as and must make informed recommendations which balance the needs of transportation with the needs to protect the environment.
In addition to this, the Court also established a committee to look into the problem and make an assessment regarding the current status of technology that can be used to control air pollution through vehicular means – one that is not only cost-effective but also reduces vehicular pollution on short term as well as long-term basis.
- Shyam Diwan & Armin Rosencranz, ‘Environmental Law and Policy in India’, Oxford University Press
- Krishan Keshav, ‘Law and Environment’, Singhal Law Publications
- Gurdip Singh, Environmental Law in India, MacMillan Publisher
 1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819
 1987 SCR (1) 819; AIR 1987 965
 AIR 1996 SC 2715: (1996) 5 SCC 647
 (1997) 1 SCC 388
 1991 SCR (1) 866, 1991 SCC (2) 353
Author: Debapriya Biswas,
Amity Law School, Noida (2nd year)