The high profile election battle in Varanasi brought into focus the need for cleaning the Ganga and other rivers. But top environmental activist MC Mehta has waged a struggle for our rivers and forests for decades now.
“It is a scandal as large as Fukushima, but has been ignored by the government,” says an anguished MC Mehta, India’s legendary green crusader and a lawyer by profession. He is referring to the flagrant violation of environmental laws by large mining companies such as Hindalco, Kanoria and Lanco. They have been depositing fly ash in water sources in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, thereby polluting Rihand Reservoir, Obra Dam and Sonbhadra River. This region is home to some of the biggest coal deposits in the country and has been mined by these companies.
As Mehta, along with Prof GD Agarwal (retd) from IIT Kanpur, went from house to house in Singrauli district of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in 2000, the devas-tation he saw stunned and saddened him.
Poisoned to death
In order to check if these companies were following the rule of law, Mehta and his team collected samples of fish, vegetables, fruits, cereals, milk, grain and water and got them tested. It confirmed their worst fears. Heavy metals like lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic and mercury were present in all these edible items. “Mercury had entered the food chain and thousands of villagers had it in their hair and nails. They were being poisoned to death and there was little we could do. These mining companies were dumping fly ash in water sources for years, and villagers and tribal populations were using it for both drinking and agricultural purposes,” says the famous environmental activist.
True to his nature as a crusader and one-man environmental army, he filed a PIL in the Supreme Court (SC) in 2000 to stop these companies from polluting water sources and harming the health of people. He angrily says, “I feel so frustrated…so helpless seeing the plight of old women and lactating mothers, who have no means of fighting this great wrong done to them. It is a very unequal fight because we need to muster scientific and technical data to buttress our arguments, which is simply not available.”
But then, Mehta has the zeal of a missionary when it comes to protecting the environment. As he sits in his newly constructed office opposite Moolchand Metro Station in the capital, concern clouds his eyes.
You realize he is fighting an unequal battle. Big corporations and governments who violate environmental laws give two hoots about the damage they cause to natural resources or the sick people affected by their actions as they march towards prosperity.
Mehta’s office has a large black-and-white photograph of the Taj Mahal. The white marble floors with black engraved borders too remind one of the monument and the battle he fought in 1984 to save it from polluting industries in Agra.
It was a chance encounter in the early 1980s that made Mehta take up the Taj case. He was attending a memorial meeting of former parliamentarian Piloo Mody, when a stranger came up to him and started complaining about lawyers. A miffed Mehta asked him, “What is your problem?” Where-upon he replied, “My concern is about the Taj Mahal, which is under serious threat of environmental pollution. Its marble is turning yellow. I have spoken to several lawyers, but no one is willing to fight the case.” Mehta gave him his address. A few days later, newspaper clippings highlighting the state of the Taj landed in his office.
Mission Save Taj
Mehta picked up the gauntlet and decided to plunge headlong into tackling the problem. He visited the Taj along with Prof T Shivaji Rao, an environmental engineer, who had written several articles about how pollutants from Mathura Refinery would adversely impact this famous monument. His first visit to the Taj shocked him. “The marble was yellowing and the monument was in a state of decay. There was no environment ministry in those days, or any Central Pollution Con-trol Board. Over the next six months, I made several trips to Agra, collecting facts about the polluting industries that were adversely impacting our national monument,” he says.
In 1984, Mehta filed a PIL in the SC, demanding that polluting industries be shifted out of the ecologically fragile Taj trape-zium. The SC directed him to monitor the 10,400 sq km trapezium, extending from Agra and Mathura to parts of Aligarh and Rajasthan. “It was a mammoth task. I infor-med the court that this was beyond my capacity. Much later, when the central and state pollution control boards were set up, the task of monitoring air and water levels of industries located within the Taj trapezium fell on their shoulders.”
Ultimately, in a major triumph for Mehta the SC ordered 212 small factories surroun-ding the Taj Mahal to close down. The following year, Mehta took up the case of pollution in the Ganga.
Mehta’s interest was spurred by a headline in the Hindustan Times that said that the Ganga had caught fire: “I rushed to Haridwar, where, indeed, a major fire was blazing on its waters. Someone had thrown a lit matchstick on the toxic effluents being discharged into the Ganga by Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd and the Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd. The fire took 30 hours to be doused. It made me realize that I needed to do something to stop pollutants from being dumped into the river.” He had found his next calling.
Saving the Ganga
With single-minded devotion, he filed a case against both these industries. Fortunately, the SC decided that the ban on dumping effluents should be extended to the entire Ganga basin, and issued orders asking all industries to take steps to clean up or close shop. In an acknowledgement of Mehta’s supreme crusading skills, the SC later set aside a courtroom every Friday just to hear his cases. The Ganga case was heard every week from 1995 onwards, and resulted in the closure of 300 polluting factories.
By now, Mehta had tasted blood. The green avenger decided he would extend his activism to every sphere of a citizen’s life. Scarcely had he completed filing the Ganga case than he started a campaign to introduce lead-free gasoline in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Calcutta. “All environmental cases are linked. If we look at the statistics, every fourth child who died in the mid-Nineties in India, did so on account of respiratory disorders. That is why in 1994, I filed another PIL in the SC, demanding that we switch over to unleaded petrol,” says Mehta. On April 1, 1995, Delhi became the first city in India to move to unleaded petrol, and CNG was part of that journey, he says.
Many more battles
Another crusade of Mehta’s was a PIL questioning why mining was being carried out in the Aravalli Hills, right up to Badkal Lake in Surajkund. As he went around collecting evidence on the mining mafia operating up to five kilometers from the Delhi-Haryana border, he found explosives being used for rock blasting in an unscientific manner, causing not only an ecological disaster, but also health issues for people living there. “I received many threats from these mine operators, especially after the SC ordered that a team of doctors from AIIMS and Maulana Azad Medical College do a first-hand study of the conditions of laborers working in these mines. The situation was appalling because 95 percent of them were found suffering from TB and other diseases,” says Mehta.
One case led to another, and soon Delhi’s slaughter houses was next on his agenda. Nearly 20,000 animals were killed here under cruel and unhygienic conditions.
Awards have poured in—Ramon Mag-saysay Award, (1997), the Goldman Environ-mental Prize (1996 ) and the UN Global 500 Award (1993) to honor his path-breaking work. But the zeal, unfortunately, has changed only a few things on the ground. Our river bodies and forests continue to be under immense stress. Mehta admits that pollution levels continue to be alarming and “environ-ment laws are not being enforced either at the central or the state levels.”
Mehta, who is presently whipping up opposition against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Gorakhpur village in the Fatehabad district of Haryana, should now motivate and train a band of dedicated green lawyers who can take up cudgels just the way he did.