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  • Writer's pictureVijayant Goel

M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1987)

Pooja Gupta & Avinash Kumar, Students, Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida


Air, land, water are not what we have inherited from our forefathers but is a loan from our future generations” - Mahatma Gandhi

The precious words of our Father of Nation strike a chord with everyone, but all of us require is a sensitive heart and mind to take positive steps. Every one of us must have seen a river large or small which ultimately flows into seas or oceans. In contemporary time, unfortunately, most of the major rivers of the world are polluted, and this scenario was the same in the late 20th century. When River pollution and environment degradation was at its peak as a by-product of Industrial Revolution and Modern civilisation; Mahesh Chandra Mehta also is popularly known as MC Mehta emerged as a ray of hope who single-handedly took up the cause of Ganga River Pollution. Ganga being One of our Major, sacred and trans-national river was being fouled in Kanpur City one of the biggest city situated on its bank. MC Mehta v. Union of India[1] is also famously known as the Ganga Pollution Case. This case addressed the whole issue of Ganga water pollution into two halves. The former dealt with the leather tanneries of Kanpur and the latter with the Municipal Corporation. This case and its judgement hold a vital position in the inception and synthesis of Environment Law in India.


MC Mehta, a celebrated Supreme Court lawyer, filed a writ petition of mandamus in the year 1985. He claimed that even after numerous strides made in the legislations, Government authorities failed miserably in taking practical steps to prevent Environment and River Pollution. Mr. Mehta, in his Petition, requested the Supreme Court to restrain the disposal of domestic and industrial pollutants in river Ganga by the leather tanneries and Municipal corporation of Kanpur. The city of Kanpur was one of the biggest cities situated on banks of the river Ganga and at the time petition was filed; 274.50 million litres of sewage a day was being discharged into the river which is considered to be sacred and is the lifeline of billion Indians. Despite various provisions of the laws which checked and prevented river pollution and while the Ganga Action Plan was being discussed, perpetrators were going scot-free. Even the Municipal corporation of Kanpur was negligent in performing its duties. At that time Kanpur had 29.2 lakh population approximately, and the river received a large amount of toxic waste from Kanpur juncture in its course. This Petition was bifurcated into two parts which dealt separately Leather Tanneries and Municipal Corporation.


This Famous Ganga Pollution case in question, as mentioned before, was bifurcated into two halves. Let us analyse these parts separately. The first part was named Mehta 1. In this half Supreme Court highlighted specific Constitutional Provisions which talked about the importance and need for Environment Protection. Right from the article 48-A of Directive Principles for States to article 51-A of Fundamental Duties of Citizens talks about how the state through its machinery and People should endeavour to protect the natural environment and wildlife of the country. The apex court also re-stated the significance of Water(Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, which was passed to regulate and stop water pollution. Environment Protection Act of 1986 was also taken into consideration while adjudging the Petition. It was observed that the significant sources of pollution in the river are sewage and industrial waste emerging out mainly from leather Industries. The water discharged by the tanneries contained toxic substances which consequently lessened the oxygen level of water leading to the death of Aquatic Life and emanated foul odour. Some of the industries had sewage treatment plants, but as setting them up was a costly affair, many of them could not build one.

The Supreme Court held that despite before mentioned laws, no practical steps were taken by the state board in curtailing the pollution. Similarly, the Central Government was also not able to prevent this Public Nuisance caused by these industries. To minimise the effects of water pollution Court ordered Tanneries to construct primary treatment plants if not secondary due to financial constraint. Setting up of primary treatment plants was made mandatory irrespective of the financial condition and also decided that without them, polluting industries cannot be allowed to exist as it affected the environment and thousands of people directly.

Mehta 2: This part of the Petition was taken against the Kanpur Municipal Corporation or Nagar Mahapalika. Established under the Uttar Pradesh Nagar Mahapalika Adhiniyam, 1959 it was the obligatory duty of the Kanpur Municipal Corporation to Collect, remove the sewage, construct waterworks and safeguard the water used for consumption from getting fouled as mentioned in Chapter 5 of the Adhiniyam. It was the primary function of the Nagar Mahapalika to look after the sanitation and hygiene in the area under their jurisdiction


The Supreme Court of India directed the Kanpur Nagar Mahapalika to strictly adhere to the directives given in the Adhiniyam of 1959 and also was ordered to direct the dairies to either shift outside the city or dispose of their waste outside; increase the size of sewers and the number of public toilets for the poor strata of Kanpur population. Court also ordered the City Corporation to refuse a license to establishing new industries if there was no proper mechanism for sewage treatment for trade effluents. The above orders were not only for the Municipal Corporation of Kanpur but also for all the city corporations having jurisdiction over the area through which Ganga flows. Supreme Court also directed the Central Government to increase awareness amongst the citizens by introducing a chapter on Environment pollution in the school curriculum and by organising various social awareness drives at the urban and rural level to sensitise the population about the adverse effects of this menace. This Petition surfaced in Supreme Court when the Government of India was trying to come up with its first environmental scheme

This Petition surfaced in Supreme Court when the Government of India was trying to come up with its first environmental scheme to reduce pollution of the rivers in the northern part of the country. The National level Ganga Action Plan was initiated with the sole purpose of diversion and treatment of domestic trade effluents before it reached Ganga. For this very purpose, grants were allocated to various states and their Cities bordering the longest river of our country to construct and establish infrastructure to reduce the pollution. However, the inefficiency of the Government machinery was quite evident as the work was being completed at a snail's pace.

Even after more than 30 years of Supreme Court's ruling of this Case River Ganga continues to remain in a Pathetic situation. Since then, again and again, the Supreme Court has been reprimanding the state pollution control boards and the industries to keep a check on its pollution rate; Fake reporting of the ground-level situation by state boards has been a severe issue. Every time the same defaulters and the Supreme court getting into the courtroom drama gives the clear picture of how the judicial system has limited its scope. Owing to the internal mismanagement contributed to make Ganga the 6th most polluted river of the world. The biggest irony is the country where Ganga river is rooted in ancients texts of Veda and is still considered a mother figure/goddess/ sacred river is now crippled by its population. The issue relating to environmental pollution often gets brushed aside under the carpet as most of the time, people are unaware or are least concerned because they are not at the receiving end of this social issue. Those who suffer are often the people who have fewer resources and have started accepting the harsh realities of life.

Our Supreme Court rather than giving directives to the Municipal Corporations and the leather tanneries should have punished them, to observe future deterrence. Had it been stringent in the earlier stage, we could have saved our river from getting more polluted.

Laws need to be changed as the Indian Penal Code punishes a person found guilty of polluting water with a minimal sum of 500 rupees. More development in the laws and zero-tolerance against the defaulters is the need of the hour. Developing more dynamic laws can undoubtedly help to reduce pollution level of the rivers as since Ganga Action plan many other programmes were launched by different ruling governments still no positive results were seen. Therefore stringent laws are the only hope for deterrence.


In furtherance of a pragmatic view concerning all the issues raised, it can be concluded that the implementation of this ambitious scheme was not possible. When this initiative of river water cleaning program was started in 1985, we were on the right path, although the plan conceived was commendable implementation was not satisfactory. There were three prominent stumbling hurdles in the overall failure of the erstwhile Ganga Action Plan. While this program was implemented in a reasonably decent manner but difficulties were faced in the operation and construction of the assets majorly sewage treatment plants, storage system, toilets. In the hindsight, we can find three major stumbling blocks first was the financial constraint and low budget of state government, no timely funds/uninterrupted power supply and third was lack of dilution of water as whole water was taken out and sewage water was dumped in the river without giving it time to replenish itself. It is the job of the governments, municipal bodies and industries those who are polluting and they have killed this river. All these institutions and industries have killed the river because the water of River Ganga has become unfit for washing, bathing, irrigation, drinking and many other purposes. So, it has become dead water, and it is so toxic that even life in the River Ganga is no more. All the fishes and other species which survive in the water they also have been finished. So, this is the unfortunate part that we are playing, On the one hand, we say Mother Ganga and on the other hand the attitude of governments and municipal bodies those who have to enforce the law, they behave with the river in this way. This is intolerable; one cannot tolerate this situation. There is no harmony between these bodies, and the government ( state and central ) are not sitting on the same table. However, this is only the National River in the country. We are part of this nation, and thus we should take steps to clean this national river of ours.


[1]MC Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) 1 SCR 819.


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