Justice? What justice?

Published: Friday 15 March 1996

THE Supreme Court has been passing quite a few orders on environmental cases of late. It is, in fact, now common for journalists to somewhat affectionately refer to -one particular judge as the 'green judge', the largest number of judgments having been passed by him. So, environment is clearly on the judiciary's agenda and today, partly because of this, there has been a jump in environmental awareness. This has been definitely partly boosted awareness, once the people saw that someone is willing to act.

But by the same logic, the sc faces the danger, of seeing this growing popularity turn into anger. and frustration. Some recent developments have raised major doubts., Take, for instance, the orders on the removal of catalytic converters from new cars, or the measures suggested for the protection of. the historic Taj Mahal, and lastly, the very sad decision on the closure of five polluting units in Bkhhdi village of Rajasthan's Udaipur district.

ILast fortnight, the sc ruled that removal of catalytic converters from cars should be treated as an offence and the appropriate authorities,must deal with the offenders according to the provisions of law. First of all, the court has acted on a petition filed by someone who has reacted to press reports on the widespread removal of the converters. However, there is no concrete evidence that this is indeed happening. In fact, statistical 'records show that the demand almost clearly matches the supply. Thus, has the Court ruled oh a practice which is seemingly not there?

Secondly, there is no law to deal with this, as experts in the 'appropriate authority' opine. The laws we allow the road transport authority to deal with manufacturers only. But in this instance the offenders are the carowners. The sc, of course, has stated that if required, proper laws or rules should be framed. Till then, what is the value of the judgment? And then, the order makes car-owners took like environmentalvillains. But it is only because getting unleaded petro.1 is such a pain (only 226 petrol pumps in the whole country, till January 1996, as the Court itself notes, sell unleaded petrol), that the practice has grown, if at an. For us, there7 fore, what would be more appropriate is that the judiciary should tell the- bureaucracy to arrange for infrastructure before expecting citizens to stick to environmental measures. Without that, the government's project on catalytic converters remain a mere populist measure.

The court has also recently issued several orders on maintaining the hgalth of the Taj. It would be inappropriate to go into great details right now, but it is important to mention that the report by the National Environmental Engineering Resear@h institute (NEEPJ), the basis on which the court is taking, action, has been rubbished by many exTerts, and Down To EartYs own analysis shows. that there are too many questions which the NEERI mandarins themselves have no answers to /but, all the same, they have gone ahead and filed the report. What is the basis on which the Court accepts the rep .orts of NEERi as correct? How can NEERI reports be objective, when it depends directly on funding from the people who want a report done? NEERI is not an independent authority, and has been found to have given biased opinion in several cases, Will the court then reconsider the orders in this case, ask for an expert review of the NEERI'report and then, re-evaluate the whole thing?

Lastly, we must say with a deep sense of regret that the order in the Bichhdi case is shocking. The court has ordered five units to be closed because they have been finally found to be dangerously polluting. But the surprising fact is that these units have been closed for the last five years due to mass action by the villagers. So what is the Court closing now? The owner has shifted out. The land remains as polluted, the aquifer is, receiving fresh inputs of poisonous water every time the rains wash down more of the carcinogenic sludge into it, and the people still await compensation.

When CSE spoke to some of the people involved in the Bichhdi case after the court order, they said the villagers were under the impression that the sc had ordered compensation. In fact, there is no such order-All that the sc says, inter alia, is that if they want compensation, they can approach local courts.

There are many other aspects to the Bichhdi case'(for instance, the fact that the owner of theclosed units has moved and set up shop elsewhere, happily ruining the environment there). But this is the most serious aspect: the people have been looking at the, sc for justice, for making provisions for, drinking water, for compensation, only to be told that-it has nothing to say on providing safe drinking water, and if the villagers want justice,, they have to apply for it once again.

Wha t, will they now say,, when they hear the truth, staring at the polluted water in their wells, which is the colour of dark@ strong coffee or a cola drink? What will the women, who walk miles each day to get some safe water, now say? Can the court blame the people, if one day they just turn around and say: "Justice? Huh!"

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