Misplaced fervour

Published: Saturday 15 February 1997

on january 20, the Karnataka High Court, deciding on a petition by the Nagarhole Budakattu Hakku Sthapana Samiti -- a local ngo -- against the construction of a wildlife resort by the Taj group of hotels, held that leasing of forest land and buildings in the Nagarhole national park was illegal. The verdict is in line with a landmark judgement passed on May 10, 1996, by the Supreme Court (sc), which said that the most vital community need at present is the conservation of the environment and reversal of environmental degradation.

A welcome decision, no doubt, because such judgements generate a lot of public interest in environmental issues. However, in the majority of the decisions, there seems to be a lack of a holistic vision. The issue seems to have been oversimplified. The courts are taking what are essentially executive decisions without giving any thought to their implementation.

It is not the courts' job to take administrative and technical decisions. And it is definitely not the courts' job to implement decisions. There are government agencies which are paid to do this. But as the courts take on this responsibility, the agencies concerned sit back and watch, content with not doing their jobs. They often cite lack of infrastructure and capacities as a reason for not implementing decisions taken by courts. While this may sometimes be the case, it is more often the lack of accountability which is responsible for the non-implementation of the country's laws.

The cases against air pollution are ideal examples. In May 1992, the sc ordered the closure or shifting of stone crushers along the Delhi-Faridabad border, as it polluted the air in Delhi. As a result, thousands of migrant labourers lost their jobs. Recently, the menace of urban air pollution has caught the attention of the courts. But again the various judgements on the issue seem disconnected -- use compressed natural gas (cng) in vehicles used by the government, find out the benefits of using propane or use catalytic converters. The promoters of propane and catalytic converters stand to gain. But the basic questions of bad traffic, lousy fuel, outdated vehicle technology, the growing number of vehicles, and the paucity of public transport have not been addressed.

In December 1996, a two-judge bench of the sc comprising Justice Kuldip Singh and Justice Faizan Uddin ordered that all coal-based industries in the Taj trapezium area in Agra should have closed or relocated by December 31, 1997. The order was passed to save the historic monument from the effects of environmental pollution. But will relocation of these units outside the trapezium area save the Taj Mahal? One might well ask what provisions have been made for ensuring that the pollutants do not foul the air and water outside the trapezium area. Shifting of industries can easily become shifting of pollution to other areas.

Does this mean that the sc should stop taking a stand on environmental issues? Not at all. All it means is that it is and should remain the court of last resort -- the supreme authority in the country for redress. Courts have enough on their hands, especially with the numerous public interest litigations that are awaiting a decision. It should not get bogged down with doing the job of the government -- taking and implementing technical and administrative decisions. Monitoring the implementation of such decisions is also the work of the executive. Besides, in the complexity of the issues involved, if the sc misses out any aspect, to whom will the ordinary citizens turn?

The court should pass judgements at the level of policies and insist on their implementation -- not on a one-time basis, but as a permanent framework. The agencies responsible for implementing these policies should be made to do so by making them more accountable to the public. The court should simply pass orders that effectively penalise the regulators and not the individual defaulters. It is only then that the dignity of the court will be maintained and the environment will also be preserved.

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