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Case Analysis: Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v/s Union of India

India has been a key player in the establishment and implementation of the Sustainable establishment Goals (SDGs). It was the sole country advocating for the establishment and implementation of nationally determined contributions as a means of measuring and tracking progress toward the SDGs. Furthermore, India has demonstrated a strong commitment to providing financial resources to the United Nations trust for the SDGs organisation. India was one of the first countries to participate in Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) because it was proactive in commencing SDG planning prior to their finalization.

The Supreme Court of India issued a significant decision in the matter of Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India. This decision was a crucial step toward highlighting the 'Precautionary Principle' and the 'Polluter Pays Principle' as essential components of sustainable development in Indian environmental law.

The 'Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum' filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) under Article 32 of the Constitution, claiming extensive environmental degradation and water pollution as a result of unchecked discharge of untreated effluents into the Palar River by tanneries and other industries in Tamil Nadu.

Case Analysis: Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India [1]
Appellant: Vellore Citizens Welfare Forums
Respondent: Union Of India Rep. By Its Secretary, Department Of Environment And Others
Bench: Justice Kuldip Singh, Justice Faizan Uddin, Justice K. Venkataswami
Court: Supreme Court
Decided On: Apr-07-2016

An NGO called Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum has filed a PIL under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution regarding pollution caused by massive discharges of untreated sewage by tanneries and other industries in Tamilnadu. Untreated sewage is dumped into agricultural lands, open lands, and rivers, eventually ending up in the Palar River, which serves as the primary source of water supply for the population of that area. It was said that the entire surface and subsoil of the water surface had been polluted as a result of this untreated sewage discharge, resulting in a lack of water for the population of the area.

According to a survey conducted by the Tamilnadu Agricultural University Research Centre, more than 35,000 hectares of agricultural lands in the tanneries belt have become either partially or completely unfit for agriculture due to the excessive use of chemicals and dyes, which has harmed soil quality and contaminated groundwater. 350 of the 467 wells were contaminated. It was also revealed that just 443 tanneries out of 584 had filed for the board's approval.

Issue Raised:
  • Whether the tanneries should be permitted to keep on working at the expense of environment and health & lives of lakhs of individuals?
The Petitioner's Learned Counsel contended in court that the discharge of untreated effluents from the tanneries contaminated the whole surface and subsurface water of the Palar River. This contamination has made it difficult for residents to obtain safe, drinkable water.

A survey report from Peace Members, a non-governmental group, was given by the petitioner. This survey examined 13 towns in the Dindigal and Peddiar Chatram Anchayat Unions and discovered pollution in 350 of 467 drinking and irrigation wells. It was emphasized that percolation polluted groundwater, resulting in acute water scarcity for the inhabitants. Women and children were frequently required to go considerable distances to obtain safe drinking water for their families.

The petitioner provided another survey report requested by the Legal Aid and Advice Board of Tamil Nadu, which was done in Solur village by lawyers M.R. Ramanan and P.S. Subramaniam. This survey discovered 176 compounds in the tannery effluents, indicating substantial levels of pollution. It was noted that processing just one kilogram of leather requires around 40 litres of water, resulting in an alarmingly large volume of harmful effluents from tanneries.

Furthermore, according to a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University Research Centre in Vellore, nearly 35,000 hectares of land in the tanneries belt have become completely or partially unsuitable for agricultural.

The petitioner argued that despite the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the government urging tanneries to establish Common Effluent Treatment Plants or set up their own effluent treatment plants for about a decade, most tanneries were still operating without any treatment plants, even when the Central Government offered subsidies for setting up common treatment facilities.

The tanneries' counsel contended that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board's Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) limits were unjustifiable.

On April 9, 1996, however, the Court invited the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to investigate and provide expertise on this matter. The NEERI assessment affirmed the Board's requirements as reasonable.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF) has yet to develop definitive guidelines for the release of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), sulphates, and chlorides into inland surface water. Individual State Pollution Control Boards have the authority to make these decisions based on local site conditions.

The TNPCB's criteria for inland surface water release can be met for tannery wastewater by implementing adequate control measures throughout the tanning process, as well as effectively operating and correctly designed wastewater treatment facilities (ETPs and CETPs).

  • The court directed the central government to establish an authority under section 3(3) of the Environment Protection Act of 1986 and prescribed some guidelines for the authority's operation:
    1. The authority was given the necessary powers to deal with issues concerning tanneries and other polluting industries in Tamilnadu State.
    2. The authority has the authority to give directives under Section 5 of the Environment Act. It should apply the precautionary principle as well as the polluter pays principle.
  • It should divide compensation into two categories: payments to individuals and reversing the ecosystem. A statement should be prepared that shows the entire amount of compensation to be given, the names of polluters and affected families, and the total money that must be deposited with the district magistrate/collector of the affected region, who will repay the impacted.
  • The court imposed a pollution fine of Rs.10,000 each on all tanneries in North Arcot Ambedkar, Dindigul Anna, Erode Periyar, Chennai M.G.R., and Trichi and ordered them to pay before October 31, 1996. The amount should be paid to the district magistrate/collector, who must collect it under the head of environment protection fund, which will be used to reimburse the affected people and restore the damaged environment.
  • It has also directed the establishment of common treatment facilities or individual pollution control devices, as well as the obtaining of board approval for continuing operation.
  • The court has ordered the superintendent of police and the collector/magistrate of specified areas to immediately close or move tanneries that have failed to acquire approval from the board.
  • It went on to say that the board's TDS guidelines were in effect and that all companies and tanneries in Tamil Nadu had to follow them.
  • The court has directed the Madras High Court to form a special bench known as the "Green Bench" to handle this issue and other environmental matters.
  • The court ordered the state of Tamil Nadu to pay MC Mehta Rs.50,000 in legal fees and other expenditures and praised him for his active engagement.

This is one of the major decisions in environmental protection. The Supreme Court used the concept of sustainable development in its decision in this case. It demonstrated that, while industrial growth is important for the country's economic progress, it is not pursued at the expense of people's health and lives.

  1. Union of India and ors, Original public interest writ petition, 1996 5 SCR 241, ILDC 443 (IN 1996), 1996 5 SCC 647, 1996 AIR 2715, JT 1996, 375, 28th

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