The Enviro-Litigators

M. C. Mehta vs. Union of India

The work of M.C. Mehta, a noted Supreme court lawyer, is the most exemplary but by no means the only force for recent change in this area. In 1985, M.C. Mehta filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court charging that, despite the strides made in the legal code, government authorities had not taken effective steps to prevent environmental pollution. Mehta issued a writ of mandamus to restrain leather tanneries and the municipal corporation of Kanpur from disposing of industrial and domestic effluent in the river Ganga. The court subsequently bifurcated the petition into two parts. The first dealt with the tanneries of Kanpur and the second with the Municipal Corporation. Called Mehta I and Mehta II in legislative digests, they became the "Ganga Pollution Cases" and the most significant water pollution litigation in the short history of Indian environmental law.

In the original petition of 1985, Mehta requested the court to order the leather tanneries of the Jajmau district of Kanpur to stop discharging their untreated effluent into the river. He also claimed that the Municipal Corporation of Kanpur was not undertaking treatment of domestic sewage. The petition named eighty-nine respondents; among them were seventy-five tanneries of the Jajmau district of the city, 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 (Singh, G. 1995:88).

Click here for order dated 09/22/1987

Click here for the court order dated 01/12/1988.


At the time the Ganga Pollution cases were being heard, the Government of India was initiating its first environmental scheme to combat river pollution in northern India. The Ganga Action Plan (hereafter GAP) was created to address problems of waste management by diverting and treating industrial and municipal effluent before it reached the Ganga. Executed through the Ministry of Environment and Forests, this central government scheme provided grants to create this infrastructure in the largest cities bordering the river Ganga in three states. The original plan was to construct these facilities and then turn them over to city municipalities for long term operation and maintenance.

During the implementation of GAP, the central and state offices of various government departments were able to move toward a monopolization of power in the field of urban waste management. They achieved this while effectively avoiding debates with nongovernmental groups. NGOs often charged that the constant shift of senior decision-makers in government departments made long term planning impossible. However, nongovernmental organizations have not been able to alter the basic distribution of power between central, state and city institutions, and thereby remain critics from the outside. Foreign consultants working in GAP projects, on the other hand, appear close to NGOs when invoking the rhetoric of decentralization, but continue to direct their investments to "healthy" government departments.

Entering the mid-1990s, the Supreme Court stepped up its efforts to check the centralizing efforts of the government by passing orders that reprimanded government agencies for dereliction of duty. By 1995, the Supreme Court had fined over 200 industries in the Ganga basin, penalized the State Pollution Control Boards for false reporting, and pressed the Ministry of Environment to streamline its proposals for treatment plants through a less wieldy set of supervisory committees. It appeared that the struggle for power was certainly intensifying on paper, as the judiciary, through courtroom dramas, fines, and punishments sought to check the power of the executive branch and industries throughout the country. Yet this judicial activism proved profoundly limited by the very system it sought to check: by calling on the same agencies it reprimanded to implement its orders, the Supreme Court was rendered profoundly ineffective.

Last Updated: October 04, 2017