In India, as elsewhere in Asia, laws to protect the environment
have long been in place. Yet in India, as elsewhere, such laws are often honored in the
breach, and flagrantly so. As a result, there is little to prevent the malignant
discharges of the subcontinent's polluting industries, its sewers, and its trucks and cars
from fouling the air and water and earthwith crippling consequences for India's
crowded millions. India's environmental agencies do have teeth, says crusading public
interest lawyer M. C. Mehta, "but they refuse to bite."
Mehta was drawn to environmental issues in 1984, when someone called his attention to
the corrosive impact of air pollution upon India's architectural masterpiece, the Taj
Mahal. He studied how effluents from nearby industries were eating into the soft marble of
the shrine and filed a writ petition against the polluters with India's Supreme Court. For
more than ten years he pursued the case, marshaling mountains of facts. In a series of
staggered directives, the Court responded by banning coal-based industries in the Taj's
immediate vicinity, by closing 230 other factories and requiring three hundred more to
install pollution control devices, and by ordering the creation of a traffic bypass and a
tree belt to insulate the unique monument.
Meanwhile, when a gas leak at a fertilizer factory in 1985 killed several people and
made nearly five thousand others sick, Mehta won a landmark decision for damages. And when
someone inadvertently ignited the Ganges with a lighted match that same year, he filed
petitions that led to orders against five thousand polluting industries along the holy
river. At his insistence, 250 towns and cities in the Ganges Basin have been required to
install sewerage plants. Mehta vigilantly monitors compliance with all such orders.
In similar Mehta cases, the Supreme Court has ordered the Delhi Administration to
relocate nine thousand dirty industries safely away from the crowded capital, to protect
the city's one remaining forest from illegal encroachments, and to build sixteen new
sewerage treatment plants. Other Mehta campaigns have resulted in the compulsory
introduction of lead-free gasoline in India's four largest cities and the prohibition of
commercial prawn farms within five hundred meters of the national coastline. In a 1991
ruling, moreover, the Court compelled India's radio and television stations and movie
theaters to disseminate environmental messages daily.
These victories have required years of singleminded exertion. By working eighteen hours
a day, Mehta manages with a tiny staff and the fervent support of his wife and daughter.
He work from a cramped office at home and subsidizes environmental cases with fees from
his private practice. He faces constant harassment and even threats to his life.
Mehta's marathon effort is making legal history. In forty landmark judgments, the
Indian Supreme Court has put the stamp of its authority upon his assertion that the
"right to life," as guaranteed in India's constitution, includes the right to a
clean and healthy environment. Furthermore, it has ruled that violators of this right are
absolutely liable for the harm they cause. Indian courts may therefore grant compensation
to victims of environmental abuse with the certain understanding that "the polluter
Fifty-year-old Mehta keeps his organizational affiliations to a minimum and is known as
something of a lone crusader. Still, he devotes several weeks each year to Green Marches,
during which he works with grassroots organizations around the country. The movement for a
clean habitat must be a people's movement, he says. "The future lies in the hands of
a vigilant public."
In electing Mahesh Chander Mehta to receive the 1997 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public
Service, the board of trustees recognizes his claiming for India's present and future
citizens their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.