Affected people can even approach the criminal court

JUSTICE N VENKATACHALA former judge of the Supreme Court, is currently chairperson of the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA). Set up in July 1997, NEAA has so far handled about a dozen environment-related cases. The numbers are far below expectations, allege some experts. In an interview with Down To Earth , Venkatachala speaks about the need to empower district courts in India to decide on compensation for environmental damages as they would be more accessible to the affected people

Published: Monday 15 May 2000

Should right to a clean environment be made a fundamental right?
It is a fundamental right that can be enforced in the court of law. A person who is affected by environmental pollution can enforce his right to life.

Should there be harsher laws to deal with pollution?
There are sufficient laws, but implementation is the problem. The government must take decisive action relating to these matters, particularly in planning and implementing nationwide programmes for preventing, controlling and abating environmental pollution as required by Section 3(2)(ii) of the Environment (Protection) Act. The Centre can also make any other authority, officer or person take necessary steps to control pollution.

How can we ensure compensation for people affected by pollution?
The power of granting compensation could be entrusted to the civil courts.The Centre can always think of a law, which can empower district courts to be designated as Environmental Claims Tribunals. High Courts (hc ) may also be empowered to decide appeals.

Is there any provision in the Act which the public has not taken note of, but could be a threat to polluters?
Section 19 of the Act says that if any person violates any provision of the Act or any orders or directions made thereunder, such persons can be prosecuted in a criminal court. If the authority/officer responsible for prosecuting the polluter fails to do so within 60 days of receiving the complaint, people can approach the criminal court and have the polluter appropriately punished under Sections 15, 16 or 17 of the Act.

Some industries are paying the price for polluting the Yamuna. What about the municipalities who are discharging sewage effluents into the river?
Municipalities can be successfully prevented by the courts from discharging sewage effluents into the river by making appropriate orders against them. Urgent action can always be taken by the Supreme Court ( sc ) or Delhi hc , if either of them is convinced that the pollution is mainly due to municipal sewage.

What are the other Environmental Acts that can be implemented?
There is the Environmental Tribunal Act ( eta ), which decides compensation claims related to accidents/damages while handling hazardous substances. There is also the Public Liability Insurance Act ( plia ) under which a person can seek relief up to the extent covered by the insurance. The liability is unlimited under eta but in plia the amount payable is limited. But these Acts only cover cases related to handling of hazardous substances.

How do you justify closure of industries?
One can give jobs to the labourers in other places where a new industry is established. If this cannot be done, then nothing can be done about it because people's health is more important than a few people losing their jobs. But when the industry is relocated, it has to install pollution control equipment in the new place. The court has not made them shut down in places where they exist to allow them to pollute elsewhere.

Should the industry pay for the damages it causes?
Definitely, they should pay huge sums of money. The earlier such laws are made in the country, the better it is. Things will becomes easier by giving district courts the responsibility for dealing with claims for remedial action.

Can the judiciary direct the government to ban manufacture of certain products that are harmful to health, for instance, diesel vehicles are found to emit cancer-causing substances?
Whether an industry has to be allowed to produce or not is a matter of policy. It depends on the totality of circumstances, that is the total effect of the product. Is it of such danger that its production should be stopped altogether?

What is your opinion on Public Interest Litigation (PIL)?
pil has proved to be good for the country. It can be used by anybody who is likely to be affected by environmental pollution. If this tool is taken away from the public, it may do more harm than good. But to prevent its abuse, the court examines the case and if it is without substance it closes the case there and then. Particularly, when sc or any hc entertains suits under Article 226 or 32, it will examine it at the threshold whether the grievance is genuine.

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