Case Analysis: M.C. Mehta v. Union of India

In the Supreme Court of India
Name of the Case  M.C. Mehta vs Union of India & Ors
CitationAIR 1988 SC 1037; (1987) 4 SCC 463.
Date of the Case22nd September, 1987
PetitionerM.C. Mehta
Respondent(s)Union of India & Ors.
Bench/JudgesE.S. Venkataramiah and K.N. Singh, JJ.
Statutes/ Constitution InvolvedThe Constitution of India, 1949; The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
Important Sections/ArticlesThe Constitution of India: Art. 48A & 51A. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act: Sec. 2(j), 16, 17, 24. Environment (Protection) Act: Sec. 3(2)(iv), 9, 15.


Man’s development is often seen to happen at the cost of the environment. From improper disposal of non-biodegradable items to large industrial discharge, everything takes a toll on the environment without which human life cannot thrive. The Ganga, which is regarded as the most sacred river in India, has now become a recipient of huge amounts of domestic and industrial waste. The case revolves around the discharge of harmful industrial effluents into the river.

The case analysis aims to scrutinize the background, facts, issues raised, arguments of both sides and highlighted concepts in the case and mentions them as succinctly as possible.


Emanating from the Himalayas, the Ganga flows south and then eastwards and drains itself into the Bay of Bengal. The length of the river is 2,525 km and has been the lifeline of many civilizations in India. Kanpur with its population of 2.9 million people becomes one of the biggest cities located on the banks of river Ganga and discharges a huge amount of waste into the river. The main pollutant from this city is the industrial/trade effluents from the leather industry.

The wastewater from this industry contains “putrescible organic and toxic inorganic material” when discharged in the water will deplete the level of dissolved oxygen in the waterbody and will lead to the death of aquatic life and would cause harm to any person who consumes this water. The case was taken up by the Supreme Court via a writ petition filed by the renowned lawyer, Shri MC Mehta who is regarded as a pioneer in the field on environmental law and it was found that many industries on the banks of the river were discharging their effluents into the river even without primary treatment of the same. The case is alternatively known as the Ganga Pollution case, Kanpur Leather Tanneries case or Mehta I.

Background of the case

For more than a century, Kanpur has been a major centre for India’s tannery industry and is one of the three important industries next to paper and textiles. Most of these tanneries are located on the southern banks of the Ganga, outside the city of Kanpur and are highly contaminating. Among all the cities of Uttar Pradesh, Kanpur contributes to the highest pollution load into the Holy Ganges which alone accounts for 75% of the river’s pollution. Tannery effluent is distinguished by its strong colour, high levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), high pH, and large amounts of dissolved solid wastes.

When this petition came up for preliminary hearing, the court directed the issue of notice under Order 1 Rule 8 of the Code of Civil Procedure treating this case as a representative action by publishing the summary of the petition in the newspapers available in northern India and calling upon all the industrialists and the metropolitan enterprises and the town civil chambers having locale over the zones through which the river Ganga streams to show up under the steady gaze of the court and to show cause concerning why headings ought not be given to them as implored by the candidate asking them not to permit the trade effluents and the sewage into the river Ganga without suitably treating them before releasing them into the stream. Following the said notice numerous industrialists and local bodies have entered appearance before the court. When the above case came up for consideration before the court, it directed that the case against the tanneries at Jajmau area near Kanpur would be taken up for hearing first.

Facts of the case

M.C. Mehta, an environmental lawyer and social activist, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India against about 89 respondents, wherein Respondent 1, Respondent 7, Respondent 8 and Respondent 9 were Union of India, the Chairman of the Central Board for Prevention and Control of Pollution, the Chairman of Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board and Indian Standards Institute respectively who were not held liable.

The court ruling commenced in 1985 in the holy city of Haridwar located along the banks of the stream Ganga when a matchstick flung by a smoker resulted in the river bursting into flames for over 30 hours. The fire was discovered to be a consequence of the presence of harmful inflammable compound layer over the waters. The Court had believed the issue to be one of prime significance, however, the immense size of the case, i.e., the stretch of the river, was found to be troublesome.

Issues Raised

  1. Whether all the leather tanneries had at least set up a primary treatment plant?
  2. Whether the State Government had paid attention to the worsening condition of the sacred river and had initiated probation into the matter? 
  3. Whether any steps, if at all, had been taken by the state?
  4. Whether the smaller industries should be funded for setting up effluent treatment plants? If yes, then what should be the criteria to determine ‘smaller industries’?
  5. What all steps should the Central Government must take to regulate pollutant discharge into the river throughout its course?[1]

Arguments of the Petitioner

  • The Petitioner had grieved that neither the authorities nor the people, whose lives were intricately connected with the river and directed affected by it, seemed to be concerned about the increasing levels of pollution of the Ganga and necessary steps were required to prevent the same.
  • The Petitioner, in the capacity of an active social worker, had therefore sought a writ/direction/order in the nature of mandamus, directing inter alia inhibiting the Respondents from releasing toxic effluents into the Ganga until they integrate appropriate treatment plants to treat the effluents to stop water pollution.

Arguments by the Respondents

  • None of the tanneries disputed the fact that the effluent discharge from the tanneries grossly pollutes the Ganga.
  • It was stated that they discharge the trade effluents into the sewage nullah, which leads to the Municipal Sewage Plants before discharge into the river.”
  • Some tanneries stated that they have already had primary treatment plants, while some are presently engaged in the same.”
  • Some of the tanneries who were members of the Hindustan Chambers of Commerce and some of the other tanneries guaranteed that with the approval of Respondent 8 (State Board), they would construct primary treatment plants which would be operational within a period of six months from the date of hearing and in failing to do so, will shut down their tanneries.”
  • However, they argued that it would not be possible for them to establish secondary treatment plants to treat the wastewater further as it would involve huge expenditure which is beyond their means.”

Related Provisions

The case reminds the citizens of the fundamental duty to protect the environment as enshrined under Article 51A(g) which instructs the citizens to strive “to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures”[2]. Protection of the environment has also been regarded as the duty of the State under Article 48A of the Directive Principles of State Policy which says that “the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”[3].

The court examined the relevant provisions of The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 which was enacted in pursuance of a resolution passed by several States under Article 252(1) of the Indian Constitution requiring a Parliamentary legislation to control and prevent water pollution in these states.  The Act was then adopted by Uttar Pradesh in 1975. Section 24 of the Act prohibits the use of any stream or well for disposal of polluting matter. It lays down that “no person shall knowingly cause or permit any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter determined following such standards as may be laid down by the State Board to enter (whether directly or indirectly) into any stream or well or sewer or on land; or no person shall knowingly cause or permit to enter into any stream any other matter which may tend, either directly or in combination with similar matters, to impede the proper flow of the water of the stream in a manner leading or likely to lead to a substantial aggravation of pollution due to other causes or of its consequence”[4].

The term ‘stream’ is defined under Sec. 2(j) of the Act according to which a stream includes “(i) river; (ii) watercourse (whether flowing or for the time being dry); (iii) inland water (whether natural or artificial); (iv) sub-terranean waters; (v) sea or tidal waters to such extent or, as the case may be, to such point as the State Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify in this behalf”[5]. Establishment of Central and State Boards have been considered permissible under the said Act.

The functions of these Central and State boards have been set down under Sections 16 and 17 respectively under which one of the responsibilities of the State Board is to inspect sewage or trade effluents, works and plants for the treatment of sewage and trade effluents, and to review plans, specifications or other data relating to plants set up for the treatment of water, works for the purification and the system for the disposal of sewage or trade effluents. The State Boards are entrusted with another task of laying down standards of treatment of sewage and trade effluents to be discharged into any particular stream taking into account the minimum fair-weather dilution available in that stream and the tolerance limits of pollution permissible in the water of the stream, after the discharge of such effluents. The State Board has also been delegated the power of making an application to courts for restraining apprehended pollution of water in streams or wells.

Moreover, the Parliament has also passed the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Section 3(2)(iv) of the Act permits the Central government to lay down different standards for emission or discharge from different sources having regard to the quality or composition of the emission or discharge of environmental pollutants from such sources. Section 9 of the said Act obliges every person to take steps to prevent/mitigate environmental pollution. Section 15 of the said Act contains provisions regarding penalties that may be imposed for the contravention of any of the provisions of the said Act or directions issued thereunder.


  • The pollution of the Ganga amounted to public nuisance.
  • Despite the provisions in the Water Act, the State Board did not take any vital steps to examine and inspect the effluent discharge into the Ganga.
  • Despite the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, the Central Government too had neglected the necessity to implement effective measures to curb the public nuisance.
  • All the tanneries were needed to set up a primary treatment plant in case they could not set up a secondary treatment plant. Given the severity of the situation, that is the least they could do.  Here, the court observed that a tannery which cannot establish a primary treatment plant cannot be allowed to function because of their immense adverse effect and this shall outweigh any inconvenience caused to the management and its labour on account of its closure.
  • The financial capacity of the tanneries in regards to affording to set up a primary treatment plant was rendered irrelevant.
  • The Court drew a comparison to validate its order according to which the incapability to set up a primary treatment plant is similar to a tannery which cannot pay wages to its employees and thus will not be permitted to continue in business.
  • The court also noticed that though the discharge was channelized towards the Municipal Sewage Plants but the fact that they were drained into the river and contaminated the water body cannot be ignored.
  • It observed the Fiscal Plan and ruled for the establishment of a common effluent treatment plant for Indian Tanning Industry prepared by a committee constituted by the Directorate General of Technical Development.
  • It also referred to an ‘Action Plan for Prevention of Pollution of the Ganga’ as prepared by the Department of Environment of the Government of India in 1985 and stated that the laws of the land required that the industries be responsible for the wastes disposed of by them and should take necessary measures to curb pollution due to the same.

Through the Action Plan, the main sources of pollutants were identified to be:

  • Urban liquid waste (sewage, storm drainage mixed with sewage, human, cattle and kitchen wastes carried by drains etc.)
  • Industrial liquid waste
  • Surface run-off of cultivated land where cultivators use chemical fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides and such manures the mixing of which may make the river water unsafe for drinking and bathing
  • Surface run-off from areas on which urban solid wastes are dumped
  • Surface run-off from areas on which industrial solid wastes are dumped.

Concepts Highlighted

The entire case was based on the discharge of ‘trade effluents’ into water bodies (river in this case). Trade Effluents includes any liquid, gaseous or solid substance which is discharged from any premises used for carrying on any trade or industry, other than domestic sewage. The State Board is also entrusted with the work of laying down standards of treatment of sewage and trade effluents to be discharged into any particular stream taking into account the minimum fair-weather dilution available in that stream and the tolerance limits of pollution permissible in the water of the stream, after the discharge of such effluents.

The discharge of such trade effluents into the river has been regarded as ‘public nuisance’ in the instant case. A public nuisance is a criminal wrong. It is an act or an omission that obstructs, damages or causes inconvenience to the right of the community. It can also be defined as an act that interferes with the general community interest or the comfort of the public at large. The acts or omissions considered as a public nuisance are inexhaustive. The provision finds a place in Section 268 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

This is perhaps the most notable case that discussed the importance of water and especially the importance of river Ganga in India. The bench opined that “water is the most important of the elements of nature. River valleys have been the cradles of civilization from the beginning of the world. Aryan civilization grew around the town and villages on the banks of the river Ganga. It is the popular belief that the river Ganga is the purifier of all but we (Indians) have now led to the situation that action has to be taken to prevent the pollution of the water of the river Ganga since we have reached a stage that any further pollution of the river water is likely to lead to a catastrophe.”

The judgment reminded the citizens of the significance of a clean environment in our lives and their fundamental duties towards the same. The Constitution of India has prudently enshrined such duties and formed directive principles for the State to ensure the protection of the environment in the best possible manner. Article 48A of the Constitution provides that the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. Article 51A of the Constitution imposes the fundamental duty on every citizen the duty to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.

The judgment enlisted some key points from The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which took place at Stockholm in June 1972 according to which:  

  •  Man is both creature and moulder of his environment which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth…through the rapid acceleration of science and technology, man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale. Both the natural and the manmade environments are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights — even the right to life itself.
  • The protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world and thus it becomes the duty of the people and governments around the globe to take steps in this direction.
  • Man’s capability to transform his surroundings, if used wisely, can bring to all peoples the benefits of development and the opportunity to enhance the quality of life. Wrongly or heedlessly applied, the same power can do incalculable harm to human beings and the human environment.
  • A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference, we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.
  • To achieve this environmental goal will demand the acceptance of responsibility by citizens and communities and by enterprises and institutions at every level, all sharing equitably in common efforts. Individuals in all walks of life as well as organizations in many fields, by their values and the sum of their actions, will shape the world environment of the future. Local and National Governments will bear the greatest burden for large-scale environmental policy and action within their jurisdictions. International cooperation is also needed to raise resources to support the developing countries carrying out their responsibilities in this field. A growing class of environmental problems, because they are regional or global in extent or because they affect the common international realm, will require extensive co-operation among nations and action by international organisations in the common interest.

The main idea behind conference was to make it clear that the release of poisonous substances or of different substances and the release of heat in such amounts or fixations as to surpass the limit of climate to deliver them unhazardous must be ended so as to guarantee that genuine or irreversible harm is not perpetrated upon biological systems, that States will find a way to forestall contamination of the oceans so dangers to human wellbeing, mischief to living resources and marine life, harm to the civilities or obstruction with other authentic employments of oceans is evaded that the natural approaches would improve and not antagonistically influence the present and future advancement capability of creating nations, that science and innovation as a component of their commitments to financial and social improvement must be applied with recognizable proof, evasion and control of ecological dangers and the arrangement of natural issues and for the benefit of everyone of humankind, that States have the duty to guarantee that exercises of misuse of their own resources inside their locale are controlled and do not make harm the climate of different States or territories past their own jurisdiction.


The case analysed above brings out the significance of the environment and how human beings are disrupting its natural balance. Various concepts related to nature and the UN Conference, 1972 have been discussed at length. The case mandated the industries in India to set up a primary treatment plant compulsorily and instructed the authorities concerned to take steps in the direction of curbing the discharge of harmful effluents into the water-bodies (River Ganga in the instant case). Inconvenience caused to any of the industries by way of this particular requirement would be considered irrelevant and it has to be considered as a primary requirement given the detrimental effect that these effluents can have on the environment.


[1] Team ProBono India, Compilation of Selected Cases of Shri MC Mehta, ProBono India 21, 24 (2020).

[2] Indian Const. art 51A, cl. (g)

[3] Indian Const. art. 48A, cl. 1.

[4] The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 § 24.

[5] Id at § 2(j).

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