Last month, the Supreme Court of India imposed a fine of $8.3 million on a polluter in the State of Rajasthan.

For me, the judgment recalled my beginnings as a public interest environmental scientist.

Nearly 20 years ago, in March 1992, I was a second year law student at the University of Oregon.  I had just begun working with the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), then a part of the law school and run by Professors John Bonine and Mike Axline. John and Mike had also, a year earlier, co-founded a new organization called the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW).

That month, one of ELAW’s newest colleagues, a lawyer from India – M.C. Mehta – came to Eugene to deliver a keynote address at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC).  At that time, environmentalists outside of India were just learning of M.C.’s remarkable accomplishments in cases before the Supreme Court of India.

M.C. in front of India's Supreme Court in 1996

As a student member of WELC, I had the privilege of meeting M.C. Because I had recently completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry, John and Mike paired me with M.C. to see if I could help him with a case he was taking to India’s Supreme Court on behalf of residents of the village of Bichhri. The groundwater in Bichhri had been rendered undrinkable by industries that had just sprouted up in the area, including a company that was manufacturing H-acid (1 amino-8-naphthol-3,6 disulfonic acid), which is used in dyes.  M.C. wanted to know what health effects this ominous-sounding chemical could cause. So, I began my first task of assisting a public interest environmental lawyer with scientific information, which has been my career ever since.

In 1996, I traveled to India to work with M.C. and was with him soon after the Supreme Court of India issued its first judgment in the Bichhri groundwater case. The Court held the polluters liable for the contamination and required them to pay for remediation of the damage they had caused.

The ruling stated: “This writ petition filed by an environmentalist organisation brings to light the woes of people living in the vicinity of chemical industrial plants in India. It highlights the disregard, nay, contempt for law and lawful authorities on the part of some among the emerging breed of entrepreneurs, taking advantage, as they do, of the country`s need for industrialization and export earnings. Pursuits of profit has absolutely drained them of any feeling for fellow human beings for that matter, for anything else.”

The bottles of contaminated groundwater M.C. brought to court

To secure this remarkable judgment, M.C. first had to convince the Supreme Court of India to hear the case. In the first hearing in the Bichhri groundwater case, the lawyers for the government agency and the polluting industries demanded that the court dismiss the case. They claimed that the groundwater was perfectly fine and that their clients were bringing needed jobs to the area. What these lawyers didn’t know was that M.C. had a glass bottle of polluted groundwater from Bichhri in his briefcase. When it was M.C.’s turn to address the Supreme Court judges, he placed the bottle of dark brown water on the table in front of him, and announced that he’d be willing to withdraw his case if lawyers for the polluters would have a sip of the groundwater in the bottle.  The lawyers for the polluters, with noticeable alarm, declined the invitation. M.C. kept the bottle of groundwater on the table in front of him as a constant reminder to the judges of the severity of the situation in Bichhri.

For 15 years, the polluters have pursued legal tactics to delay enforcement of the court’s 1996 judgment.  The Court’s recent decision concludes, in part: “This is a very unusual and extraordinary litigation where even after fifteen years of the final judgment of this court the litigation has been deliberately kept alive by filing one interlocutory application or the other in order to avoid compliance of the judgment. The said judgment of this Court has not been permitted to acquire finality till date. This is a classic example how by abuse of the process of law even the final judgment of the apex court can be circumvented for more than a decade and a half.”

With the Court’s recent decision, the law has finally caught up with one of India’s worst polluters.

Mark Chernaik
ELAW Staff Scientist