Helping with environmental litigation

It takes speed and knowledge to bring environment degraders to book. Here's how:

Published: Saturday 15 October 1994

Helping with environmental litigation

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)CITIZENS groups have often ganged up to fight against environmental crime. When an impervious government fails to redress wrongs then crusaders trudge to the law courts. Today, public interest litigation has become a part of accepted legal practice.

"When we started in 1978 our credentials to act as watchdogs of society were questioned, but times have changed", says Shyam Chainani, honorary secretary, Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG). The organisation is armed with a team of dedicated lawyers and has waged many legal battles against unscrupulous builders, sometimes with remarkable success. On April 29, illegal floors in Om Chambers, a commercial building, were demolished thanks to a writ petition filed in the Bombay High Court by the BEAG. A case relating to industrial water pollution in Patalganga has also been taken up and is awaiting a final decision. Says Chainani, "We have won and lost several times. But the best advice I can give litigants is not to give the court reason to doubt their bonafide. Timely action is essential for success. Many cases are lost when litigants approach the court too late."

In many cases, the implementation of a worthy judgement may prove difficult. Says Chattrapati Singh, Director of WWF's Centre for Environmental Law (CEL), New Delhi, "We believe in looking for alternative remedies to environmental problems before we approach the courts. This makes it easier for the courts to take decisions which can be implemented." The CEL takes up litigation on national environmental issues, conducts research in environmental law, documents and networks with other organisations. Its education unit offers a 6-month course in environmental law, specifically for law students. A consultancy service provides legal aid to industry and NGOs. The CEL plans to serve as a resource centre for environmental law research and education for developing countries.

The Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action, New Delhi, was started by lawyer M C Mehta in 1988 to bring scientists, bureaucrats and lawyers on a common platform: "There is a paucity of legal expertise on development issues and we felt young lawyers could benefit." Mehta is currently involved in the Taj pollution case and his organisation has started a worldwide "Save the Taj" signature campaign. "Environmental courts would help expedite cases," he says. The Public Interest Litigation Support and Research Centre (PILSARC) is a small Delhi-based organisation which documents, does liaison case work, lobbies, and provides consultancy services on environmental law. Its services are often sought out by the ministry of environment. Says Rajiv Dhawan, director," We are scrutinising the draft forest policy bill, providing legal support to the government on GATT issues, and looking at the legal regime of Project Tiger." For NGOs working in farflung rural areas, the PILSARC offers free consultancy.

Dhawan advises against rushing to the High Court straight away. People must try to get relief from local courts: "The Consumer Protection Act can be used effectively to redress certain grievances: for instance, if drinking water is polluted, this Act can be applied effectively."

Legal Research for Social Action, Chengalpattu, also undertakes public interest litigation. Says D Gnanapragasam, project coordinator, "We are leading a campaign against a proposed road being built from Pondicherry to Kanyakumari since fisherfolk and farmers will be affected."

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