(Tamil Nadu Tanneries Case)
(AIR 1996 SC 2715)
- Primary Details of the Case
- Case No: Writ Petition (C) No. 914 of 1991
- Jurisdiction: Supreme Court of India
- Case Decided on August 28, 1996
- Judges: Justice Kuldip Singh, Justice Faizan Uddin, Justice K. Venkataswami
- Legal Provisions and Principles Involved: Articles 32, 21, 47, 48A, 51A(g)of the Constitution of India; Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; Penalty Provisions of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974
2.Brief Facts of the Case
- Parties: The parties involved in this Case were Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum as the petitioner and the Union of India and others as the respondents.
- Factual: A Public Interest Litigation was filed in the Supreme Court of India under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution by the petitioner, Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum. This petition was against the large-scale environmental degradation and pollution caused by the tanneries in Tamil Nadu due to the discharge of untreated effluents by them in their nearby agricultural fields, open lands, waterways, and even road-sides. And these untreated effluents ultimately got discharged into the river Palar which is the primary source of potable water for the people in the tanneries belt and surrounding areas.
3.Issue Involved in the Case
The question that arose in this case before the Apex Court was whether the tanneries should be allowed to continue to operate at the expense of environmental deterioration and the lives of people?
4.Arguments of the Parties
It was pleaded before the Court that the entire river Palar has been too polluted. The discharge of untreated effluents from the tanneries has contaminated the surface water and the subsoil water of the river.
The petitioner submitted the report of a survey conducted by People Members, a non-governmental organization. The survey covered 13 villages and revealed that out of the 467 wells used for drinking and irrigation, 350 wells had been polluted. The people of these villages face an acute shortage of water, and the women have to walk miles to get drinking water for their families. This indicated that groundwater has also been contaminated by percolation. Another report presented by the petitioner was a survey conducted by lawyers M.R. Ramanan and P.S. Subramaniam on the Legal Aid and Advice Board of Tamil Nadu’s request. This survey was conducted in Solur village near the town of Ambur. The report stated that 176 chemicals were found in the tannery effluents. About 40 liters of water is required to process only 1 kilogram of leather. Thus, the amount of harmful effluents generated by the tanneries is shockingly excessive. Further, a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University Research Center, Vellore, showed that approximately 35,000 hectares of land in the tanneries belt had been rendered unfit for cultivation either totally or partially.
It was also contended that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the government had been urging the tanneries for about the last ten years to set up either a Common Effluent Treatment Plant for a group of themselves or set up their separate effluent treatment plants. The Central Government also said that it would provide subsidies for the establishment of Common Effluent Treatment Plants. But still, most of the tanneries were functioning without treatment plants.
It was contended that counsel for the standard with respect to Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) fixed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board was not legitimized. But the Court requested the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute(NEERI) to look into this matter and give its point of view. And in its report, NEERIlegitimized the models stipulated by the Board. [i]
The Supreme Court held that the tanneries could not be allowed to operate at the cost of environmental destruction and thereby risk health hazards to people’s lakhs. It ordered that the tanneries be shut down until they have set up the requisite pollution control devices. And once they have set up the devices, they can approach the Tamil Nadu Pollution Board for its consent and then would be allowed to reopen accordingly. Also, a fine of rupees 10,000 was imposed on each tannery in the district of North Arcot Ambedkar, Dindigul Anna, Erode Periyar, Chengai M.G.R. and Trichi, to be deposited I the office of the concerned District Collector. Further, appreciating the endeavors of Mr. M.C. Mehta towards environment protection, the Court directed the State of Tamil Nadu to pay rupees 50,000 to him.
And lastly, the Court directed the Central Government to constitute an authority as envisaged by Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. It laid down the composition and the function of this authority to implement the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle. It shall compute the amount of compensation payable by a polluter both for payment of compensation to the individuals or families affected and the cost needed to reverse the environment’s damage. And if the polluter refuses to pay the amount of compensation, then the authority shall direct the industry’s closure. Accordingly, the Central Government constituted an authority named the ‘Loss of Ecology (Prevention and Payments of Compensation) Authority.’
- Rationale Behind the Judgement
The rationale behind the judgment of the Court was first, the concept of sustainable development. The Court discussed the idea in great detail. It explained that even though the tanneries are a primary foreign exchange earner for the country, they provide employment to many people, and Tamil Nadu is the leading exporter of leather. Still, the tanneries cannot be allowed to degrade the environment and cause health hazards to the State’s people. The need for the time is sustainable development, and two of the principles of sustainable development are the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle. The Court further mentioned that these principles had been accepted as part of our country’s domestic law. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, includes the right to clean and fresh air and water and a pollution-free environment. Article 47, 48A, 51A(g) mandate the protection and improvement of the domain. Also, there is specific legislation in this regard, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. Lastly, these principles have been held to be sound by the Apex Court in several cases, like the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India.
And regarding the direction for the constitution of authority, the relevant law is Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
The judgment of this Case is one of the landmark judgments delivered by the Supreme Court of India for the protection and improvement of the environment. The way the Supreme Court explained and applied the concept of sustainable development, the polluter pays principle, and the precautionary principle is remarkable. The Court rightly held that development at the cost of environmental deterioration and people’s lives could not be permitted. There is a need to balance the two, they must go hands in hands, and the method is the concept of sustainable development. It means a development so that the needs of the present are fulfilled without harming, destroying the environment, natural resources, so that the future generations can also meet their needs and survive. Further, the polluter pays, and the precautionary principle is also of utmost significance these days. Every possible precaution must be taken to avoid harming the environment due to developmental and industrial operations. And if any injury is caused, then the polluter must be held liable to pay compensation to the persons affected and reversing the damage caused to the environment. If we resort to sustainable development, then there be development in the real sense; otherwise, we would lose the various natural resources to our material needs.
[i] Mr. Mudit Saxena, Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, Indian LegalSolution, (May,9,2020),https://indianlegalsolution.com/vellore-citizens-welfare-forum-v-union-of-india/.