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  • Writer's pictureVijayant Goel

M.C. Mehta v. Union of India – Ganga Pollution Case (1987)

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Daksha Chimote, Student, DES Shri Navalmal Firodia Law College, Pune


Ganga is considered to be a sacred river in India. It is not only crucial in spiritual terms but also a scientific and geographic point of views. Being the largest river basin the country, it stretches across 11 significant states including cities like Kanpur, Delhi, Allahabad, Kolkata and Varanasi. A considerable percentage of the population is dependent on the water of the Ganga. It is a known fact that Ganga is infamous for being the most polluted water bodies in the country. The discharge of toxic material thrown out by various industries into the waters of Ganga has been a significant cause of concern for the government, authorities and the people at large. The intoxicated pollutants flushed into the waters of Ganga by sewage plants of various industries affects not only the human population but also the marine life. There have been dangerous implications on the environment because of pollution in the water body. M.C Mehta vs Union of India is a case which can be seen as a stepping stone in the field of developing environmental law in India in the 1980s. The case focused on the need for protection of the Ganga from the perilous waste dumped into the river by the industries.

Background of the Case

Kanpur is the most populous city lying on the stretch of river Ganga. Hence, many industries existing in the areas of this city have been responsible for directly flushing in harmful effluents into the Ganga. Ganga receives a large percentage of toxic waste and chemicals from the domestic and industrial units, especially the leather tanneries in Kanpur. In 1985, a writ of Mandamus was filed by M.C Mehta in order to abstain the leather tanneries by preventing them from discharging the generated waste into the Ganga river. The court held that in view of Article 48-A of the Indian Constitution, the State should endeavour to protect, improve and safeguard the environment as well as forests and wildlife of the country. Another provision being Article 51-A which imposes a fundamental duty on every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife. It highlighted the importance of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 (‘the Water Act’) by stating that the following act was passed for improving the water quality of water and preventing water pollution; Section 24 of the act prohibiting the disposal of waste in water bodies. The same legislation empowered the central and state boards to take adequate measures and ensure rehabilitation and protection of water bodies in lieu of pollution under Section 16 and 17 of the act. Lastly, it also relied on the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to foreground the government’s duty to protect the environment and bring in solutions accordingly. Thus, this formed the background and the laws needed in the case.


The writ petition was admitted as a Public Interest Litigation because the matter was a concern for the public as a whole before the Honourable bench of Supreme Court comprising of E.S Venkataramaih and K.N Singh. In the preliminary hearing of this case, the court directed to issue a notice with the gist of the petition and got it to published in the newspaper in Northern India as to allow the representation of parties (industries or municipal corporations or local bodies in the jurisdiction of areas of Ganga basin) who had an objection against the prayer put forth by the petitioner asking them not to discharge sewage and trade effluents of their industries in the Ganga river without prior treatment. After this, a large number of industries and local bodies came forward raising issues and meanwhile some appeared before the court contesting that steps had been taken by them to treat the waste before it could be dumped into the river. Since, out of 89 respondents, 75 consisted of tanneries in Jajmau area of Kanpur located on the banks of river Ganga, the case against them were to be taken up first. Other respondents being the Union of India, the Chair of the Central Pollution Control Board, the Chair of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, and the Indian Standards Institute. A particular number of tanneries showed representation before the court, whereas some did not appear before the court neither showed representation. The court stated that under Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, it an obligation for the government to look after the functioning of the Boards set up under the act. It is to be noticed that the Boards set up under the act have proved to be inefficient towards their responsibility of keeping sewage from such tanneries in Kanpur into the Ganga. Additionally, under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 no effective measures were taken by Central government to lessen the public nuisance (as water had become unfit for drinking, fishing, bathing and other purposes) caused by tanneries in Kanpur (Jajmau area). There had been various reasons for the pollution of the Ganga river but trade effluents being the major contributor to the degradation of water quality of Ganga. Trade effluents were defined as any liquid, gas, solid substance which is released out during running of industries for trade and production. Plus, it was not disputed by the tanneries that the water had been polluting because of the discharge gushed out by them. Consequently, the court held that the tanneries must set up primary and secondary treatment plants if they wish to continue running their industries or the government would have no other option but to put restraining orders on the activities of the tannery or even ask for the closure of the business even though it will affect the employment, loss of revenue of the same.

Environment protection is as much of importance as any other subject matter and hence compromise is not an option. For this to happen, the government and citizens should show responsibility and concern towards the protection of various facets of the environment. It is to be noted that the leather industry is one of the largest consumers of water in order to produce its goods. Ultimately, these pour out a lot of wastewater consisting of toxins. The discharge of chemical and toxic waste in water bodies affect the people and may give rise to various water-borne infections and kill marine life. When these toxins are let into the public sewer, it chokes the sewers and also affects the groundwater when the effluents are disposed on land.

Even after all this, a few institutes came up with alternatives and measures for the tanneries to adopt for treating the waste before it is let into the Ganga. The tanneries agreed to set up primary treatment plants but contested that the setting up of secondary treatment plants would require high costs and that it would be a burden to spend finances on the same. On this, the court stated that at least primary treatment plants shall be set up if not secondary to stop the pollution of Ganga. The court further held that the financial incapabilities of the tanneries should be no excuse not to set up primary plants. Since industries which cannot afford to pay minimum wages to its labour cannot be allowed to exist, in the same way, any tannery showing incapacity to set up primary plants should cease to exist. This will outweigh the inconvenience caused to the labour and tannery as it will help safeguard the environment from treacherous implications and lead to the public interest. Thereafter, the court directed for shutting down of industries who did not care to show up or respond to the notice issued for non-compliance with the setting up of pre-treatment plant.

Meanwhile, a period of 6 months along with several suggestions was given to the tanneries who agreed to set up the treatment plants. In this way, any tannery found to be polluting the Ganga either directly or indirectly shall be shut down as per the directive of the honourable court. This was then the responsibility of the U.P State Pollution Board, Central government and local municipal bodies to enforce the order of the court. Hence, the court was right on its decision to find the industries liable for the pollution as they had been doing so since years indirectly or directly. The fact that this judgement can still be relevant in the current scenario is commendable. The need for a better environment and preservation of its constituents is still a matter of concern. Ganga is still considered as a polluted river in the country, even with all its historical and geographical significance.

The government’s effort to reduce the problem of pollution in Ganga can also be seen in the form of “Ganga Action Plan” initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Forest of the government in 1986. The plan was to make Ganga pollution free right from Kolkata to Haridwar. The aim of the plan was to build structures for avoiding pollution and aimed to tackle the problem of waste management by treating and finding remedies to clean the effluents before letting it into the waters of Ganga. Phase I, which was supposed to be for five years, started in 1986, but despite the efforts and expenditure, it was slow-paced and failed miserably.

Around the same time, the Supreme Court started taking note of the working of government agencies regarding this matter. It rebuked the actions by stating that they were performing their duties sloppily. The Supreme Court had fined over 200 industries set up in the areas near to the Ganga basin and made sure to penalise State Control Pollution Boards for their misleading activities and gross violation of power. Nevertheless, even with these steps, total efficiency and disruption of polluting Ganga could not be implemented.

The court justified its reasoning by a series of logic facts revolving around the ambit of ecological elements and the need for a balanced environment. It mentioned the rising water-borne diseases, benefits of preventing pollution and stressed that it was best for the overall well-being of people and their health to put a hold to the pollution. It put forth the reasons for pollution and the necessity to curb pollution as it would affect people’s health, agriculture, aqua life, at large. The decision to close down polluting industries can be seen as a significant step taken by the judiciary. The issue of responsibility on the part of industries was well justified and the Mahanagar Palikas i.e. the Municipal Corporations were also to be held responsible for not abiding by their statutory duties of preventing water pollution in the Ganga basin. It had asked the Corporations to come up with steps for sewage treatment and put them into effect as soon as it could. The good part was that the SC had directed the High Courts to not put a stay on criminal proceedings involving polluting industrialists.

The judgement was following all the legislations, namely the guidelines given in the fundamental duties of the Constitution of India, namely; Article 51A and Article 48. As a result, there had been a statutory provision for not dumping pollutants in any stream or well or water body; meaning that nobody could knowingly or unknowingly dump harmful and poisonous material in the water bodies. It was, therefore the duty of the Central Government to create awareness amongst the citizens by issuing books free of cost and making it compulsory for students and the young generation to understand the importance of the environment. The various sections of Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 (‘the Water Act’) and Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 here taken in the broadest sense possible and was in lieu of law and authority. Moreover, this judgement establishes the fact that strict punishments and liability for the offenders should be made available. It also highlights the need for cost-effective and well-planned sewage disposal systems for industrial as well as domestic purpose so as to combat the problem of pollution of all sorts. Hence, all the decisions and ruling of the court has complied with the public interest at large. This was perhaps the earliest case with regards to tanneries and in the ambit of environmental law. This case led to an extension which was related to the tanneries in Calcutta; thus, the case being named – M.C Mehta v. Union Of India (Calcutta Tannery case).

Furthermore, this case brought upon the issue of the need for protection of damage from pollution and emphasised the importance of pollution control since the lack of corrective measures in the later stage of damage are way more orders than the initial stages. Lastly, it should be required to create pollution prevention policies to improve the industrial sector of the country. It is unfortunate to note that significant implications can be seen if these measures are not taken in a restricted time and manner.

1. R v Sault Ste. Marie is a case held in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1978 which gave clarity of as what can be contended as a public welfare offence and what kind of liability to be applicable for it. The city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, recruited Cherokee Disposal to discard the city's waste. The city assembled a removal site 20 feet from a stream which, when filled by the removal organisation, brought about waste saturating the stream. The city was accused of releasing or allowing to be released, decline into the open streams causing contamination according to Area 32(1) of the Ontario Water Resources Act. The issue under the steady gaze of the court was whether the city's offence ought to be delegated severe risk or outright obligation. In the judgment composed by Justice Dickson, the Court perceived three classifications of offences:

Genuine Crimes: Offenses that require some perspective (mens rea) as a component of the wrongdoing. These offences are generally inferred by the utilisation of language inside the charge, for example, "purposely", "adamantly", or "deliberately". Exacting Liability: Offenses that do not require the verification of mens rea. The demonstration alone is culpable. The obligation is on the blamed to have gone about as a sensible individual and has a resistance of sensible misstep of actuality (a due persistence safeguard). The Court expressed that the due determination barrier "will be accessible if the charged sensibly had confidence in a mixed-up set of realities which, assuming valid, would deliver the demonstration or exclusion blamelessly, or if he found a way to stay away from the specific occasion. These offences may appropriately be called offences of exacting risk." The purpose behind this is that the Court portrayed a requirement for a class of offence that had a lower standard to convict than True Crimes yet was not as cruel as Absolute Liability offences. Instead of the primary classification of offences where the denounced is assumed blameless, offences of exacting obligation presses an assumption of carelessness on the charged. The weight of demonstrating that the blamed went about as a persevering individual lays on his shoulders and should be shown by the prevalence of proof.

Supreme Liability: Similar to Strict Liability, these offences do not require verification of mens rea either. Nonetheless, the charged has no protections accessible.

To recognise these sorts, the Court looks at the, generally stating, administrative example embraced by the council, the topic of the enactment, the significance of the punishment and the exactness of the language utilised will be essential contemplations in deciding if the offence falls into the third classification. The Court at that point noticed that the dumping offences were of an open government assistance nature and were from a commonplace rule, along these lines, were Strict Liability offences and do not require mens rea.

Water contamination worries in St. Mary's River were not distinguished until 1985, seven years after the Supreme Court choice. Sault Ste. Marie is a border town – with urban areas of a similar name in Michigan and Ontario. The contamination had begun from different modern sources. Condition Canada and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, the U.S. Natural Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality all marked a Letter of Commitment toward the biological rebuilding of this territory. A three-phase remediation plan was made on the Canadian side. The city has resolved to keep its water clean through persistent observation and support, something that began with this contamination indictment 35 years back.

2. Another relevant case that could be considered is Anderson v. Cryovac. It was a government claim concerning poisonous defilement of groundwater in Woburn, Massachusetts was tried in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in 1986.

This milestone case focused on the supposed pollution of two city flexibly wells (G and H) in Woburn, Massachusetts, by three nearby ventures. The offended parties were a gathering of eight families that lived in a piece of town served by the two metropolitan wells. The litigants were W.R. Beauty and Co., proprietor of the Cryovac Plant, UniFirst Corporation, proprietor of Interstate Uniform Services, and Beatrice Foods, Inc., proprietor of the John Riley Tannery. The offended parties asserted that ingestion of harmful synthetic substances utilised at these businesses, which were estimated in water tests from the city wells, were liable for extreme well-being impacts. Offspring of seven of the offended parties contracted leukaemia. Five of the kids kicked the bucket from leukaemia or intricacies of having leukaemia. The companion of one offended party contracted intense myelocytic leukaemia and kicked the bucket.

The preliminary started in February 1986 amid much nearby media inclusion and broadly communicated sections on 'an hour's and 'Nightline.' After 79 days of for the most part specialised declaration from master observers recruited by each of the three gatherings, the six-part jury visited Woburn in July to see wells G and H, and the closeness of the offended parties' and respondents' properties. The jury thought for nine days and discovered W.R. Elegance subject and Beatrice Foods not at risk of polluting wells G and H. This pushed the offended parties' claim ahead against W.R. Beauty and Co. of the subsequent stage. In September, W.R. Elegance recorded a movement for a legal blunder, which Judge Skinner expressed he would acknowledge. The offended parties and W.R. Beauty arrived at an $8 million settlement under the steady gaze of Judge Skinner's legitimate decision was made. The settlement included monies for five different families that had recorded a different claim against W.R. Effortlessness and Beatrice for well-being impacts other than leukaemia.

3. Interprovincial Cooperatives Ltd v. R (1975), [1976] 1 SCR 477 is another leading case from the Supreme Court Of Canada. Manitoba had instituted a law that conceded people occupant in the region who were hurt by waterway contamination starting from Saskatchewan and Ontario a privilege of activity to sue the dirtying organisations based outside of the territory.

Equity Ritchie, composing for the Court, held that such a legal right of activity was outside of their protected capacity to sanction enactment identified with property and social equality inside the area under segment 92(16) of the Constitution Act, 1867. The toxin organisations were appropriately authorised by the commonplace administrations of Ontario and Saskatchewan and could not be disturbed by Manitoba. In an agreeing reason by Justice Pigeon, he contended that the permit was not applicable. However, instead, the way that the contaminating demonstration happened outside of Manitoba is sufficient to be outside the territory's power. Boss Justice Laskin, contradicting, contended that the enactment was legitimate on the premise that it was expected to review hurt done inside the area and that the extraterritorial impact was just subordinate to the primary reason.


What we see in the following case is that decision has set a precedent of being a pro-bold stance taken by the Honourable Supreme Court towards the preservation of the precious yet fragile environment we live in. It makes us realise the importance of the river Ganges in the life of the people and makes us question our way of life. Rivers are a source of water and water is an indispensable part of our lives as millions depend on it. There is a dire need for conservation and upliftment of polluted water bodies. The noteworthy aspect of the judgement is that there is need to foster high standard accountability for the statutory bodies and agencies who are empowered to look after the water quality and protection of environmental aspects in the society. Another aspect which is worth mentioning is of the preference given to the environment over the economy. This judgement has set a message that environmental interests are as vital as any other interests, i.e. economic repercussions in this context, which is commendable and signifies the essence of ecological importance.

Ganga is viewed as a devout waterway in the strictly sacred writings. The current circumstance requests all-encompassing responsibility from the specialists and individuals to make it clean. The worldwide picture is anticipated by the neatness of our streams. The stream Ganga is a piece of our way of life, and we should keep up its holiness. The administration ought to figure a more rigid approach to build up the nature of the water in the waterway. The ecological laws ought to be carefully followed, and the violators ought to be rebuffed.


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