Environmental Pollution by Tanneries

Facts: A public interest petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India was filed by Vellore Citizens’ Welfare Forum, directed against the pollution which was being caused by discharge of untreated effluent by tanneries and other industries in the State of Tamil Nadu. The tanneries were discharging untreated effluent into agricultural fields, roadsides, waterways and open lands. The untreated effluent was finally discharged in River Palar which was the main source of water supply to the residents of the area. The entire surface and subsoil water of River Palar was polluted resulting in non-availability of potable water to the residents of the area. According to the preliminary survey made by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University Research Centre, Vellore nearly 35,000 hectares of agricultural land in the tanneries belt had become either partially or totally unfit for cultivation. These effluents have spoiled the physico-chemical properties of the soil and have contaminated groundwater by percolation. An independent survey conducted by Peace Members, a non-governmental organisation, covering 13 villages of Dindigul and Peddiar Chatram Anchayat Unions, revealed that 350 wells out of total of 467 used for drinking and irrigation purposes had been polluted. Women and children had to walk miles to get drinking water. 59 villages were affected in the three divisions of Thirupathur, Vellore and Ranipet. There is acute shortage of drinking water in these 59 villages and as such alternative arrangements were being made by the Government for the supply of drinking water. The tanneries and other polluting industries in the State of Tamil Nadu were being persuaded for the last about 10 years to control the pollution generated by them. They were given option either to construct common effluent treatment plants for a cluster of industries or to set up individual pollution control devices. The Central Government agreed to give substantial subsidy for the construction of Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs). However, most of the tanneries did not take any step to control the pollution caused by the discharge of effluent.

The Court on 1-5-1995 passed an order directing those tanneries who have set up the Effluent Treatment Plants either individually or collectively time to complete the setting up of Effluent Treatment Plant (either individually or collectively) failing which they shall be liable to pollution fine on the basis of their past working and also liable to be closed. So far as the 57 tanneries which have not installed and commissioned the Effluent Treatment Plants despite various orders, keeping in view the fact that the Court has been monitoring the matter for the last about four years and various orders have been issued by the Court from time to time, the Court found no justification to grant any further time to these industries and they were directed to be closed with immediate effect. Opportunity was given to the 57 industries to approach the Court as and when any steps towards the setting up of Effluent Treatment Plants and their commissioning were taken by these industries. If any of the industries wished to be relocated to some other area, they may come out with a proposal in that respect.

The Court by the order dated 20-10-1995 directed the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur (NEERI) to send a team of experts to examine, in particular, the feasibility of setting up of CETPs for cluster of tanneries situated at different places in the State of Tamil Nadu where the work of setting up of the CETPs has not started and also to inspect the existing CETPs including those where construction work was in progress. NEERI gave various recommendations to be followed by the units, which the Court directed compliance with

Discussion and Observations:
The Court observed that it is no doubt correct that the leather industry in India has become a major foreign exchange earner and at present Tamil Nadu is the leading exporter of finished leather accounting for approximately 80 per cent of the country’s export. Though the leather industry is of vital importance to the country as it generates foreign exchange and provides employment avenues it has no right to destroy the ecology, degrade the environment and pose as a health-hazard. It cannot be permitted to expand or even to continue with the present production unless it tackles by itself the problem of pollution created by the said industry.
The traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other is no longer acceptable. “Sustainable Development” is the answer. In the international sphere, “Sustainable Development” as a concept came to be known for the first time in the Stockholm Declaration of 1972. Thereafter, in 1987 the concept was given a definite shape by the World Commission on Environment and Development in its report called “Our Common Future”. The Commission was chaired by the then Prime Minister of Norway, Ms G.H. Brundtland and as such the report is popularly known as “Brundtland Report”. In 1991 the World Conservation Union, United Nations Environment Programme and Worldwide Fund for Nature, jointly came out with a document called “Caring for the Earth” which is a strategy a for sustainable living. Finally, came the Earth Summit held in June 1992 at Rio which saw the largest gathering of world leaders ever in the history — deliberating and chalking out a blueprint for the survival of the planet. Among the tangible achievements of the Rio Conference was the signing of two conventions, one on biological diversity and another on climate change. These conventions were signed by 153 nations. The delegates also approved by consensus three non-binding documents namely, a Statement on Forestry Principles, a declaration of principles on environmental policy and development initiatives and Agenda 21, a programme of action into the next century in areas like poverty, population and pollution. During the two decades from Stockholm to Rio “Sustainable Development” has come to be accepted as a viable concept to eradicate poverty and improve the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the supporting ecosystems. “Sustainable Development” as defined by the Brundtland Report means “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs”.
We have no hesitation in holding that “Sustainable Development” as a balancing concept between ecology and development has been accepted as a part of the customary international law though its salient features have yet to be finalised by the international law jurists.
Some of the salient principles of “Sustainable Development”, as culled out from Brundtland Report and other international documents, are Inter-Generational Equity, Use and Conservation of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection, the Precautionary Principle, Polluter Pays Principle, Obligation to Assist and Cooperate, Eradication of Poverty and e Financial Assistance to the developing countries. We are, however, of the view that “The Precautionary Principle” and “The Polluter Pays Principle” are essential features of “Sustainable Development”. The “Precautionary Principle” — in the context of the municipal law — means:
(i) Environmental measures — by the State Government and the statutory authorities — must anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation.
(ii) Where there are threats of serious and irreversible damage, lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.
(iii) The “onus of proof’ is on the actor or the developer/industrialist g to show that his action is environmentally benign.
“The Polluter Pays Principle” has been held to be a sound principle by this Court in Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India . The Court observed:
“we are of the opinion that any principle evolved in this behalf should be simple, practical and suited to the conditions obtaining in this country”.
The Court ruled that:
“… once the activity carried on is hazardous or inherently dangerous, the person carrying on such activity is liable to make good the loss caused to any other person by his activity irrespective of the fact whether he took reasonable care while carrying on his activity. The rule is premised upon the very nature of the activity carried on”.
Consequently the polluting industries are “absolutely liable to compensate for the harm caused by them to villagers in the affected area, to the soil and to the underground water and hence, they are bound to take all necessary measures to remove sludge and other pollutants lying in the affected areas”. The “Polluter Pays Principle” as interpreted by this Court means that the absolute liability for harm to the environment extends not only to compensate the victims of pollution but also the cost of restoring the environmental degradation. Remediation of the damaged environment is part of the process of “Sustainable Development” and as such the polluter is liable to pay the cost to the individual sufferers as well as the cost of reversing the damaged ecology.
The Precautionary Principle and the Polluter Pays Principle have been accepted as part of the law of the land. Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees protection of life and personal liberty. The Court also observed that Articles 47, 48-A and 51-A(g) of the Constitution covered the scenario.
Apart from the constitutional mandate to protect and improve the environment there are plenty of post-independence legislations on the subject but more relevant enactments for our purpose are: the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 (the Water Act), the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 (the Air Act) and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (the Environment Act).

I. In view of the above-mentioned constitutional and statutory provisions the Court observed that it had no hesitation in holding that the Precautionary Principle and the Polluter Pays Principle are part of the environmental law of the country.
II. Even otherwise once these principles are accepted as part of the Customary International Law there would be no difficulty in accepting them as part of the domestic law. It is almost an accepted proposition of law that the rules of Customary International Law which are not contrary to the municipal law shall be deemed to have been incorporated in the domestic law and shall be followed by the courts of law. To support, the Court referred to Justice H.R. Khanna’s opinion in A.D.M. v. Shivakant Shukla, Jolly George Varghese case and Gramophone Co. case .
The constitutional and statutory provisions protect a person’s right to fresh air, clean water and pollution-free environment, but the source of the right is the inalienable common law right of clean environment.
III. The Court quoted from Blackstone’s commentaries on the Laws of England (Commentaries on the Laws of England of Sir William Blackstone) Vol. Ill, fourth edition published in 1876. Chapter XIII, “Of Nuisance” and then stated that “Our legal system having been founded on the British common law the right of a person to a pollution-free environment is a part of the basic jurisprudence of the land”.
IV. The Court observed that the Environment Act contains useful provisions for controlling pollution. The main purpose of the Act is to create an authority or authorities under Section 3(3) of the Act with adequate powers to control pollution and protect the environment. It is a pity that till date no authority has been constituted by the Central Government. The work which is required to be done by an authority in terms of Section 3(3) read with other provisions of the Act is being done by this Court and the other courts in the country. It is high time that the Central Government realises its responsibility and statutory duty to protect the degrading environment in the country. It is, therefore, necessary for this Court to direct the Central f Government to take immediate action under the provisions of the Environment Act.
V. The Court observed that there were more than 900 tanneries operating in the five districts of Tamil Nadu. Some of them may, by now, have installed the necessary pollution control measures; they have been polluting the environment for over a decade and in some cases even for a longer period. This Court has in
various orders indicated that these tanneries are liable to pay pollution fine. The polluters must compensate the affected persons and also pay the cost of restoring the damaged ecology.
VI. Keeping in view the scenario discussed, the Court directed as under:
1. The Central Government shall constitute an authority under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and shall confer on the said authority all the powers necessary to deal with the situation created by the tanneries and other polluting industries in the State of Tamil Nadu. The authority shall be headed by a retired Judge of the High Court and it may have other members — preferably with expertise in the field of pollution control and environment protection — to be appointed by the Central Government. The Central Government shall confer on the said authority the powers to issue directions under Section 5 of the Environment Act and for taking measures with respect to the matters referred to in clauses (v), (vi), (vii), (viii), (ix), (x) and (xii) of sub¬section (2) of Section 3. The Central Government shall constitute the authority before September 30, 1996.
2. The authority so constituted by the Central Government shall implement the “Precautionary Principle” and the “Polluter Pays Principle”. The authority shall, with the help of expert opinion and after a giving opportunity to the polluters concerned assess the loss to the ecology/environment in the affected areas and shall also identify the individuals/families who have suffered because of the pollution and shall assess the compensation to be paid to the said individuals/families. The authority shall further determine the compensation to be recovered from the polluters as cost of reversing the damaged environment. The authority shall lay down just and fair procedure for completing the exercise.
3. The authority shall compute the compensation under two heads namely, for reversing the ecology and for payment to individuals. A statement showing the total amount to be recovered, the names of the polluters from whom the amount is to be recovered, the amount to be c recovered from each polluter, the persons to whom the compensation is to be paid and the amount payable to each of them shall be forwarded to the Collectors/District Magistrates of the area concerned. The Collector/District Magistrate shall recover the amount from the polluters, if necessary, as arrears of land revenue. He shall disburse the compensation awarded by the authority to the affected persons/families.
4. The authority shall direct the closure of the industry owned/managed by a polluter in case he evades or refuses to pay the compensation awarded against him. This shall be in addition to the recovery from him as arrears of land revenue.
5. An industry may have set up the necessary pollution control device at present but it shall be liable to pay for the past pollution generated by the said industry which has resulted in the environmental degradation and suffering to the residents of the area.
6. We impose pollution fine of Rs 10,000 each on all the tanneries in the districts of North Arcot Ambedkar, Erode Periyar, Dindigul Anna, Trichi and Chci gai M.G.R. The fine shall be paid before October 31, 1996 in the office of the Collector/District Magistrate concerned. We direct the Collectors/District Magistrates of these districts to recover the fines from the tanneries. The money shall be deposited, along with the compensation amount recovered from the polluters, under a separate head called “Environment Protection Fund” and shall be utilised for compensating the affected persons as identified by the authorities and also for restoring the damaged environment. The pollution fine is liable to be recovered as arrears of land revenue. The tanneries which fail to & deposit the amount by October 31, 1996 shall be closed forthwith and shall also be liable under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.
7. The authority, in consultation with expert bodies like NEERI, Central Board, Board shall frame scheme/schemes for reversing the damage caused to the ecology and environment by pollution in the State of Tamil Nadu. The scheme/schemes so framed shall be executed by the State Government under the supervision of the Central Government. The expenditure shall be met from the “Environment Protection Fund” and from other sources provided by the State Government and the Central a Government.
8. We suspend the closure orders in respect of all the tanneries in the five districts of North Arcot Ambedkar, Erode Periyar, Dindigul Anna, Trichi and Chengai M.G.R. We direct all the tanneries in the above five districts to set up CETPs or Individual Pollution Control Devices on or before November 30, 1996. Those connected with CETPs shall have to install in addition the primary devices in the tanneries. All the tanneries in the above five districts shall obtain the consent of the Board to function and operate with effect from December 15, 1996. The tanneries who are refused consent or who fail to obtain the consent of the Board by December 15, 1996 shall be closed forthwith.
9. We direct the Superintendent of Police and the Collector/District c Magistrate/Deputy Commissioner of the district concerned to close all those tanneries with immediate effect who fail to obtain the consent from the Board by the said date. Such tanneries shall not be reopened unless the authority permits them to do so. It would be open to the authority to close such tanneries permanently or to direct their relocation.
10. Government Order No. 213 dated March 30, 1989 shall be enforced forthwith. No new industry listed in Annexure I to the notification shall be permitted to be set up within the prohibited area. The authority shall review the cases of all the industries which are already operating in the prohibited area and it would be open to the authority to direct the relocation of any of such industries.
11. The standards stipulated by the Board regarding total dissolved solids (TDS) and approved by the NEERI shall be operative. All the tanneries and other industries in the State of Tamil Nadu shall comply with the said standards. The quality of ambient waters has to be maintained through the standards stipulated by the Board.

Thereafter, the Court requested the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court to constitute a Special Bench “Green Bench” to deal with this case and other environmental matters. We make it clear that it would be open to the Bench to pass any appropriate order/orders keeping in view the directions issued by us. We may mention that “Green Benches” are already functioning in Calcutta, Madhya Pradesh and some other High Courts.

See the following Judgment: Vellore Citizens’ Welfare Forum v UOI (Supreme Court of India, 1996)

Author: Vikrant Narayan Vasudeva
Photo by Pejman Parvandi/ CC BY-ND 2.0