People whose petitions brought about key environmental rulings look back at the way the capital, having once become a model for fighting air pollution, went downhill from there
M C Mehta, a lawyer based in Delhi, was behind PILs that led to key Supreme Court judgments on environmental issues, from the pollution plea that led to the CNG verdict in 1998 to one on industries affecting the Taj Mahal that led to a series of new norms. Excerpts from the Interview:
How do you see Delhi’s slide after initial gains from the CNG reforms of the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Delhi’s air quality had visibly improved in 2000. Everybody, from the common man to Supreme Court judges, used to talk about the change; we were celebrated as a success. But in the last three or four years, the situation has deteriorated. It is terribly sad.
Who has been responsible?
Who else but the government? In 2003, the Delhi government received an award from the US Department of Energy for its “bold efforts to curb air pollution and support alternative fuel initiatives”. In other words, the government got the award for implementing Supreme Court orders that they had opposed so stiffly. And then, they just allowed the benefits to wither away. I don’t hold one person responsible for this but the entire administration, right up to the prime minister. People at the helm just fell asleep. How could you allow your national capital to become such a global shame?
What did the Delhi and central governments do when several warnings were raised in court?
No matter who was ruling, there was a total lack of will. We had the same government for 15 years, and they just blamed Gurgaon and Noida. Politicians talk big in opposition but when they come to power, they talk about lobbies. In the 1990s, while a Supreme Court bench was moving to get 100 buses converted to CNG as a test case, two senior officials of joint secretary-rank rushed over. They created such a fuss about how CNG would explode, that it would be like a bomb blast.
What should the government have done differently?
At the very basic level, they should have taken people to task. You could launch fancy trains to Agra but you could not create expressways for almost a decade? Somebody has to take responsibility. On the contrary, the government punished honest officers who wanted to do some work. Like the CPCB chairperson in the early 1990s, Dr N S Tiwana, who was unceremoniously removed when he signed a report we submitted to the court.
In the late 1990s, the judiciary passed many rulings hailed as pathbreaking. What has its role been over the last decade?
For how long can a government expect the judiciary to take all the difficult decisions? In 1986, the court ruled there was a need for environmental courts. I helped prepare the draft bill in 1991 when Maneka Gandhi was environment minister. When the new minister came, the concept fizzled out.
What needs to be done now?
I think the government should immediately correct the mistakes, such as allowing vehicles to multiply. They should resolve the old problem of trucks. They should go back and look at polluting industries, particularly coal. They should build the two expressways planned around Delhi in 2004, and ensure the Metro expands further. The capital needs a government that is sensitive to air pollution and can bring back the awareness we brought in the 1990s. We need that awareness back.