One step forward

Published: Saturday 15 March 1997

the Supreme Court's (sc) warning to senior officials of the ministry of environment and forests to enforce laws banning industries from using and dumping prohibited noxious chemicals or face the consequences, is laudable. In the order passed on a public interest litigation (pil), which noted that industrial waste was being dumped in areas in a manner that could lead to environmental degradation, the judges warned the officials that "the highest court could not defer action against them any longer".

A judgement that takes lax officials to task has been long overdue and has been repeatedly been asked for by ngos such as the Centre for Science and Environment. Industrialists will not, of their own accord, do anything to reduce the pollution load. The situation becomes worse when the administration turns a blind eye towards environmental crimes. Government officials responsible for ensuring that pollution control norms must be forced to do their jobs. They cannot hope to live on taxpayers' money and do nothing. Public interest litigations are the result of the country's growing lack of confidence in the executive to enforce existing statutes. The courts should pass orders that restore the accountability of the agencies.

Unfortunately, the government has placed before the Cabinet a draft bill that severely limits the use of pils. The bill seeks a mandatory deposit of Rs 1 lakh for every pil placed before the sc and Rs 50,000 for pils placed before high courts. How many people or ngos can afford to dispense with such huge sums? And, by adding that purely executive action of the government does not infringe any constitutional or legal rights of the petitioner and should be excluded from the purview of pils, the government seeks to ensure that it cannot be hauled up for destroying the environment.

It is a retrograde proposal. A pil is a constitutional right. Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution empower a citizen to move the sc and high courts, respectively, for a direction to the state for restoring a fundamental right. The proposed bill will, in effect, only do away with the forum provided by law to the citizens for protecting their rights. The plea that too many pils are pending in courts cannot be used to pass this proposed bill. The answer to too many pils is not taking away the right of citizens to file pils, but setting up mechanisms for faster working of the judiciary, on the one hand, and ensuring that the judiciary is not engaged in doing the work of the executive on the other. This will happen only if the executive does its work, or is made to do it through judgements that clearly state that the executive must function or face the consequences.

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