CNG Verdict: A Legal Debate

No matter how one looks at the Supreme Court's April 5 ruling on air pollution in Delhi, it is undoubtedly a milestone in Indian judicial history. After extensive hearing on all the nitty-gritty, the court used significant innovations of the law, such as health as a part of right to life and use of the polluter pays principle to penalise a polluting technology, to chart an exact course of action for a vacillating, evasive government. Legal experts share their opinions

 
By P N Bhagwati
Published: Wednesday 15 May 2002

CNG Verdict: A Legal Debate

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A seminal judgment



The bold principles enunciated by the government are backed by a study of the practicalities involved

The Supreme Court has delivered a seminal judgment, banishing diesel buses off the streets of Delhi, albeit in a phased manner. The judgmentunambiguously demonstrates that where the executive fails in its duty, the court cannot merely sit and watch. There is no doubt that increasing pollution levelsin Delhi are taking a very heavy toll on those living here.The court, appropriately moved, had to assume responsibility for protecting the citizens' right to health in the face of environmental pollution and an executive that was merely dragging its feet.

The right to a clean and healthy environment is part of the right to life enshrined in the Indian Constitution. There have been numerous occasions in the past when the Supreme Court has, by adopting a highly activist attitude, enforced the citizen's right to a clean and healthy environment. It has, in the process, directed the state and its officials to take positive steps to put an end to environmental pollution and ecological imbalance.

The Supreme Court has, through judicial activism,fashioned the strategy of public interest litigation, and then used this strategy effectively towards ensuring environ-mental protection. The Supreme Court has rightly assumed the role of protector of the environment, so vital for human existence.

Cases involving environmental pollution and other social issues require considerable material to be placed before the Supreme Court, in order to enable the court to come to acorrect decision, not only legally but also socially. The application and enforcement of the law cannot be made inthe abstract. Law has to deal with and resolve social andeconomic conditions and issues. It has to, therefore, deal with causes and effects, facts and figures, the needs of the peo-ple and the implications and consequences of the decisionthat the court is to make. In the present case, for example,the court would need to have certain facts laid down beforeit: an assessment of how much compressed natural gas (cng) is available in Delhi, production levels, whether thereare enough outlets spread out over different parts of the city, and whether vehicles will have to form long queues for hours to obtain cng.

I am happy to note that the Supreme Court has taken these practical considerations into account in its historic judgment. The court must be congratulated for taking a decision that, I am sure, will go a long way towards making Delhi relatively free from vehicular pollution, and a safer place for the teeming population of the city.

The author is former chief justice of India.

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