a 4th year student of ITMU Law School, Gurgaon
Notice or a Heads up?
“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” By Jacques-Yves Cousteau
As much as the domain of environmental law needs good lawyers to defend it in a court of law it also needs effective statutes. Statutes must serve the ends of justice rather than the purpose of perpetrators.
It is an undeniable fact that mankind is known for its destructive nature, for we are the only animals who hunt, not merely to feed but for greed. Our debauching thirst for development and expansion gave a boom to industrialization. This in turn resulted in production of unfathomable and unmitigated pollutants. We do recognize the fact that these issues are problematic but are unable to perceive their real intensity. Environment legislations serve as sentinels for protection of mankind. However a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Our sentinels are equipped with loopholes instead of weapons of defense. We definitely need a wakeup call for we sleep a lot.
Who could possibly deny that a forewarned comes forearmed? The saying holds true when we go through the existing provisions of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. Current provisions look like handcuffs on the hands of the pollution control authorities. Apparently there is something weird about the existing statutes. It is extremely essential to give a very clear interpretation to the said section to understand the intended purpose and effect of it. Section 21 of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 focuses on power to take samples of effluents and procedure to be followed in connection therewith. The State Board or any officer empowered by it in this behalf have the power to take, for the purpose of analysis samples of water from any stream or well or samples of any sewage or trade effluent which is passing from any plant or vessel or from or over any place into any such stream or well as per the section. The samples so taken are admissible as evidence in a court of law. Sub-section (3) of Section 21 requires the authoritative person to serve a notice before such evidence is to be collected. In simple terms, if the notice is not served the evidence is not admissible. Section 26 of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act is more or less the same. Both the provisions happen to be identical in nature.
The crux of the matter is that the authorities are under an obligation to provide a notice in advance to the owner or the person in charge of the industry about such an investigation. So here is what it actually looks like- “Hello Mr. Thief I am a police officer and I am planning to drop by your house in the evening. Please be ready with all the incriminating evidence if any.”
By now you must have started thinking that there must be something reasonable behind the notice, after all the Indian Legislature would not make such a blunder while drafting an environmental legislation. To your surprise, perhaps the only reasoning is that the notice helps the owners/person in charge to facilitate the process. They are in a position to accumulate required documents and arrange for keys to the locks which are otherwise closed. Frankly speaking the rationale behind the serving of the notice is not even close to what we can call adequately reasonable.
The said notice gives enough time to the owners of the premises to make arrangements which ensure that they have complied with the set norms. That is why India is the cleanest country on paper and the most polluted in reality. Effluent treatment is often a costly business which is directly proportional to what one produces. Due to the immense pressure applied by the Supreme Court by virtue of its decisions, industries have been forced to install appropriate effluent treatment instruments/plants. However these plants are not switched on until and unless the pollution control officer is planning to pay a visit. Industry owners find it convenient to discharge their waste untreated as it saves them a few thousands or lakhs of rupees in the form of electricity and raw materials used in effluent treatment. The rest is taken care of by the lawyers of industries who know how to use a poorly drafted statute to their benefit.
We have already seen what happened in the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India case where untreated effluents were discharged in the Palar river. The river was polluted to the core. Water of more than 300 nearby wells was rendered unfit for drinking. The lands adjoining the Palar were poisoned due to chemicals making them infertile and unfit for any agricultural purpose. Similarly there are hundreds of industries on the banks of the river Yamuna. The appropriate authorities try to keep a constant vigil on these industries. However Yamuna is still being polluted. If you go to the Wazirabad area in Delhi you would be able to see a blend of effluents being discharged into the Yamuna. Despite massive governmental expenditure on cleaning the Yamuna, the status quo prevails. The Yamuna's polluted stretch was about 500 km from Wazirabad in Delhi to Juhika in the downstream reaches of the river near Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, according to CPCB's 2010 data. Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) revised report says the polluted length of the river has increased from 500 km to 600 km.
The truth is that the Yamuna cannot be restored. The same applies to any other river which has literally been sacrificed in the name of the industries which deal with toxic chemicals. Our laws look more polluter friendly and less environment friendly. The industries near the Yamuna should be re-examined. And this time the authorities can surely use some surprise element. But this is not possible until and unless our legislature thinks about amending the existing regulations.
Section 21 of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Section 26 of Air Act, 1981 are notoriously unreliable and mischievous in nature. These sections offer undue safeguards for the industry owners. Money minded industry owners use such regulation to the prejudice of the environment and the people at large. The authorities must be empowered to infiltrate the premises of industries at any time they deem fit and proper.
There is a strong link between the loopholes in the above statutes and continuous polluting of river and air. Had the authorities been empowered to pay surprise visits to industries, several such industries discharging untreated waste would have been caught red handed and prosecuted. But surprisingly they are not empowered with such authority. Their visits to the manufacturing plants are does not bear the desired results.
The Supreme Court has also expressed its dissatisfaction towards the slow pace of work despite such a big investment in the Yamuna’s case. The Hon’ble bench of Justices Swatanter Kumar and Madan B. Lokur pointed out – “All the agencies have spent crores of rupees. What is the purpose? What work has been done ultimately?” The Bench noted that despite there being as many as 18 sewage treatment plants to treat the effluents; the treated water has “a high rate of pollution”.
The real question is not whether the Yamuna is being cleaned or not. The million dollar question is whether we will ever stop polluting it. Evidently the water of the Yamuna still contains toxic chemicals. These are fresh chemicals which were not present earlier. Since the city’s sewage and other drainage channels cannot discharge chemicals in the river, suspicion veers towards the industries situated on the banks of the Yamuna. These industries were given a clean chit by the Pollution Control Board. The approvals so granted could have been a result of notices served under Section 21 and Section 26 of the two Acts. If the visits of the officials of the Pollution Control Board were not pursuant to a notice, the result might have been different.
Despite the strict attitude of the Supreme Court and the Pollution Control Board it turns out that our statutes have severely failed us. The key to the answer lies in revamping the existing statutes. Our courts have always given importance to public interest over private interest. Private interest in the present case- that of the ‘right to be present while evidence is taken’ must be relaxed against public interest which is ‘right to safe and healthy environment’. Since the courts have to stick to the letter of the law while deciding cases, it is equally difficult for them to give a beneficial construction to statutes. Let us hope that the wisdom of our authorities revive before the damage caused by hibernated statutes turns our natural resources into garbage cans.
Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India AIR 1996 SC 2715
 See http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/clean-yamuna-mission-fails-panipat-delhi-stretch-most-polluted/1/199976.html; Also see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2156984/Money-river-Rs1-500-crore-spent-cleaning-Yamuna-goes-drain-Panipat-Delhi-stretch-fails-pollution-test.html as visited on 15/06/2014
 Refer Annual Report (2010) of Central Pollution Control Board available at www.cpcb.nic.in
Picture Credits: http://www.epd.gov.hk/epd/misc/BusinessGuide/english/section2.html