An important chapter in environmental jurisprudence came to an end last week when the Supreme Court delivered three judgments that touched upon mega industries, hilltop deities and even lowly animals (as named in one of the judgments) - wild pigs, peafowl,
dugong and wild buffalo. Hereafter, the National Green Tribunal, which was set up recently, will take up such issues. The Court has 66,000 cases on its files, including 750 constitution bench matters.
The statutory bodies under the air and water laws were not set up, and there was no sense of urgency over the deteriorating environment. However, the M C Mehta cases - some 50 of them - emphasised the right to life aspect under the Constitution. Since
the right had been expanded in several judgments earlier to include dignified life and clean environment, not "mere animal existence", courts had no choice but to hear those cases.
For instance, in one of those cases, the Delhi public transport was compelled to use a comparatively clean fuel - compressed natural gas or CNG. It involved a struggle against the lobbies of traditional fuels but, ultimately, the capital's air became cleaner.
Unfortunately, the rest of the high courts have not taken the cue.
Prawn farms with huge foreign investment threatened to play havoc in the coastal region in the east, but the Court applied the "precautionary" principle, following which the project was abandoned. Coastal zone regulations were brought in and the Court
insisted on implementing them.
Other areas where the Court's long arms reached are: solid waste management in cities, protecting Taj Mahal from air pollution (units emitting chemical fumes were relocated to distant places) and privacy of indigenous tribes in the Andamans.
Since the Supreme Court has enormous constitutional powers, it could enforce its orders in the face of executive resistance. However, the new tribunal is a quasi-judicial body, and it started with severe teething troubles. The Supreme Court had to help
it find a seat and accommodation for the members. Whether it can perform as effectively as the Court is a moot point, which activists and industrialists will watch with anxiety in the coming months.
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