The Madras High Court on Tuesday directed the State government to constitute a body of expert members to discern ways to tackle pollution of water bodies in Tamil Nadu.
The order was passed by a Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy in a public interest litigation (PIL) highlighting the issue of water pollution in the Amaravati river.
“The State should constitute an expert body with persons having impeccable credentials in such regard to suggest appropriate measures whether to curb the extent of effluents discharged by the industry or to relocate industries that are close to the banks of flowing water bodies. A set of guidelines need to be formulated with appropriate checks and balances before all flowing water in the State turns poisonous. The State should take the matter seriously and invite the best minds to indicate how the quality of flowing water across the State can be preserved,” stated the order.
The Court remarked that the State, though present in yesterday’s hearing, appeared quite clueless in the matter.
All the same, it emphasised that “the pollution level in the flowing water has to be reduced to the extent possible“, and that the State has a duty to introduce appropriate checks and balances to ensure that “the dumping of effluents into any flowing water body, whether by any industry or local inhabitants, is completely prohibited if only to preserve the quality of the water for downstream users.”
It is also possible that a polluted river would render the groundwater along its banks toxic or, at any rate, unfit for use for agriculture or otherwise, the Bench added.
“In a State which depends primarily on flowing water and the damming of rainwater during the limited period that it gets rains, every endeavour should be made to ensure that the quality of the water is not compromised or adversely affected by the discharge of effluents or sewage or the like,” the Court said, before adjourning the matter till after the summer vacation.
During the hearing on Tuesday, the Chief Justice also orally observed that the State should be in a position to know about the cause for water pollution.
“You should be able to tell us what the cause for this pollution is. Could be local people defecating, people throwing rubbish, other industries – but you have to identify that, educate people…We are not in a blame game over here. Please do what is necessary,” the Chief Justice observed.
He also emphasised on the need to include experts in examining such matters.
“We will give you time to set up a committee… In this, you need experts. Only babus won’t do. You need someone more of an expert to look into that – people who deal with water…you are the government, you will know who the expert…is we don’t want bureaucratic red-tapism over here. After all, it relates to basics rights.”
While passing the order, the Chief Justice further remarked that the effort is to preserve the environment for future generations as well.
“This is not for you and me, it is for your children. (Otherwise) This is where they are going to live in a place, the air they will not be able to breathe, the water they will not be able to touch…Something has to be done. We can’t leave the world so toxic that we breed the future only to poison them to death,” he said.
“Proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Court hints it may order sampling of water from river Amaravati
The petitioner had raised concern that the wanton permissions granted to industries near the river Amaravati has led to the discharge of industrial effluents and the pollution of the river, rendering it polluted.
Advocate V Ragavachari, appearing for the petitioner, submitted that permissions had been given by the State for the expansion of an industrial unit even less than 800 meters from the river, although earlier it was prohibited to set up units within 5 kilometres of the river.
In the course of the hearing, the Court hinted that it may sample the water from the Amaravati River before taking a call on the matter.
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating… Let us first go and see, after looking at it, whether we are willing to take a sip of the water ourselves… you have your industries, as long as you put some practices and checks and measures in place…Industries are important… it is necessary for the economy but not at the risk of robbing the people of the basic amenities to life… in complete COVID protocol, we will go and drink water from wherever Mr Ragavachari takes us,” Chief Justice Banerjee suggested.
A company, impleaded as the eighth respondent in the matter, asserted before Court today that the pollution, if any, cannot be attributed to it.
Appearing for the company, Advocate S Sridevan told the Court that it is a zero-liquid discharge company. The Bench was also informed that the same petitioner had repeatedly complained against the company. In all such instances, inquiries absolved the company, it was submitted. Sridevan argued that the quality of the water at the Amaravati river, therefore, cannot be attributed to this company.
NGT v. High Court Jurisdiction
Chief Justice Banerjee had initially expressed reservations over whether the High Court ought to entertain an environmental matter. He queried whether the National Green Tribunal (NGT), being a specialised body, may have jurisdiction instead.
He pointed out that the Tribunal was granted this jurisdiction on the premise that regular judges do not know enough on environmental matters.
“What is the brief of NGT?.. If our jurisdiction has been excluded, we have to respect that…There can’t be parallel bodies. That would be opposed to public policy and would lead to conflicting orders,” Chief Justice Banerjee said.
The appearing counsel, however, said that the High Court can still intervene in environmental matters, in extraordinary cases.
On a related note, the aspect of court jurisdiction being taken away in certain matters over which specialised tribunals assume jurisdiction was also recently discussed by the same Bench, while deciding on a case concerning the appointment of Girija Vaidyanathan, IAS, as an expert member of the NGT.
“… the primary reason for taking several matters out of the domain of the civil Courts and parking them with tribunals was the perceived lack of expertise of regular Judges in dealing with specialised matters. It is, thus, of crucial importance that the expertise of the expert member of the tribunal be not diluted either in how the eligibility criteria are framed or in the selection of any candidate,” the Court had observed.