"We lack information on the effects of pollution"

JUSTICE BHAGWATI PRASAD BANERJEE of the green bench of the Calcutta high court stirred more than a hornet's nest in April 1996, when he passed an order banning the use of loudspeakers in Calcutta. In a city where political meetings are a daily affair, such a decision was considered a tough one. RAJAT BANERJI spoke to Justice Banerjee in Calcutta recently

Published: Saturday 31 October 1998

On when the green bench of the Calcutta high court was formed:
The green bench was formed in June 1996 when a case was filed by the Howrah Ganatantrik Nagrik Samiti in the Supreme Court. At that time, Justice Kuldip Singh of the Supreme Court was known as a "green Judge". This bench is largely a result of his work. In fact, the Calcutta's green bench is the only one in India. To move court, the people do not need to file a petition, a mere complaint suffices.

On the significance of the judgment on sound limits:
While we lag behind the West in many areas, it must be said that the Noise Act in England was passed after the judgment. But our government agencies have not done much work in this issue.

On the response from the city:
The response has been mixed. Deepak Das, a youth, was killed by anti-socials when he protested against their using loudspeakers. There was also a case where an additional superintendent of police was fined Rs 10,000 as the siren on his car exceeded the stipulated noise limit. Money collected through such fines is used to finance sound-measuring equipment that are installed in different parts of the city and to purchase mobile phones for pollution control board personnel. A compensation of Rs 50,000 was paid to the family members of Das from this money.

On the nature of complaints that have come before the court's notice:
Apart from complaints of noise pollution, there have been cases of tree-felling, polluted ponds and drains, unclean morgues and hazardous waste dumping by industries. There was also a case of a fire from a customs warehouse at Dasnagar, a suburb of Calcutta. This fire released noxious fumes, but the authorities were unable to determine the effect of the fumes on people living in that area.

On why specialised agencies like the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow, were not brought into the picture:
The question is: who will pay for their services? Besides lack of resources, we do not have information on issues relating to human health and the environment. We don't know why maladies such as cancer are on the rise. Even objects of daily usage, such as detergents and mothballs, are essentially made of chemicals. Though we use them all the time, we do not know about their effects. We do not have any legislation on waste management and almost no standards to speak of. Open trucks carry garbage to dump sites. But what about the garbage that flies off these trucks on to pedestrians and other commuters?

On the most pressing complaints that need immediate action:
The condition of the morgues in Calcutta is appalling. Cadavers are transported in open vehicles. The green bench has asked for the formulation of a morgue action plan, which would suggest remedial steps. We are also very concerned about garbage being dumped at places such as Babughat and the indiscriminate polluting of ponds and rivers. Industrial effluents have led to reduced agricultural produce as well as a decline in fish catch.

On vehicular pollution which accounts for maximum air pollution in the cities:
With the use of catalytic converters and unleaded petrol, the affect of vehicular pollution must have been reduced. Though 1 believe that the money collected in issuing emission certificates is not used for any specific purpose related to pollution reduction.

On whether catalytic converters and unleaded petrol are enough to control vehicular pollution:
Unless proven otherwise, that would seem to be sufficient.

Studies carried out by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) indicate that this is merely an end of the pipe effort and that the real problem lies in the quality of fuel and outdated technology
I would be glad to go through such material.

On why court judgments do not take into account the efforts of organisations doing work on certain key issues:
It is not possible for the court to know who is doing what work on which issue. It would be better for such organisations to keep themselves informed of the nature of cases in the court and come forward with their work.

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