A tool to aid democracy lies rusting

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

That concerned citizens have the right to approach the courts on matters of social justice and that India's constitution, by implication, guarantees ecological justice are indeed ideas that have done India's judiciary proud. They have greatly strengthened democracy in the country and, over the years, public interest litigation has become one of the few ways open to the country's ordinary citizens to participate in its governance. Cases filed in the past have not only helped to bring specific instances of social and ecological injustice to the attention of the courts, they have also forced the country's bureaucracy to review and, in some cases, mend its ways.

However, for public interest litigation to become a truly effective instrument in the hands of the people who seek justice, several improvements must take place. The most important, of course, is that environment-related cases must be dealt with speedily.

This is because environmental destruction threatens public health and so, obviously, a delay literally amounts to justice being denied. And, speed is equally essential in cases where a trade-off exists between environment and development, for only then can it be ensured that growth and development are not held up by ecological hazards and threats to people's survival that are either minimal or can be minimised through suitable measures. Economic growth, ecological sustainability and social equity are all equally important if India is to progress in a rational, just and balanced manner.

For public interest litigation to expand successfully, a certain infrastructure is also necessary. Several petitioners who would seek ecological and social justice before the courts do not have the wherewithal to pursue litigation. Lawyers are expensive and, therefore, prospective petitioners would first search for a public-spirited lawyer, who will take up their case free. Fortunately, a few lawyers have come forward to provide this critical support, but the need for more such lawyers is obvious. Secondly, public interest cases require money because documents have to be prepared and extensive travel has to be undertaken. Thirdly, technical support is critical. Courts have to be convinced that environmental damage or social deprivation is actually occurring and this often requires expensive surveys by experts. Finding such experts is itself difficult and even when such experts are available, the requisite laboratory equipment often is not. The respondents, on the other hand, tend to have both funds and technical experts to put forward their case. Nevertheless, courts rely on expert committees and government laboratories to gain access to relevant technical information, though the results of such committees and laboratories are mixed.

Unfortunately, the ministry of environment and forests has lagged in this area and is still not adequately equipped to deal with public interest cases. Its legal wing is extremely weak and its own lawyers cannot be deputed directly to intervene in cases. Courts usually tend to take the ministry's opinion seriously, but often they do not get the benefit of its considered opinion. It is vital for the ministry of environment to take serious note of the role of public interest litigation in environmental management. Ideally speaking, the ministry's singular role should be to assist citizens and citizen groups in seeking ecological justice. This would probably be far more effective in controlling environmental degradation and the associated social injustice than all the environmental impact assessments the ministry undertakes at present. And, the existence of adequate infrastructure for speedy justice and reliable flow and assessment of technical information will benefit the country because this would ensure public evaluation of environmental impacts.

At the moment, the situation is so bad that if a voluntary agency were to seek funds from the ministry of environment for a pollution survey of a town or a river so that polluters can be brought to book, the agency would be told politely that no such budget line exists. Such surveys can only be undertaken by government agencies and the data is usually kept under tight wraps. Unless sincere steps are taken to support public interest litigation, it will continue to remain the preserve of a few brave lawyers and relatively well-connected and resourceful voluntary agencies and individuals.

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