M.C. Mehta v. Union of India – Ganga Pollution Case – Case Summary

M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, [Mehta I] 
Equivalent citations: [1987] 4 SCC 463 
Petitioner: M.C. Mehta
Respondent: Union Of India & Ors
Date of Judgement: 22/09/1987
Bench: Venkataramiah, E.S. (J)


M.C. Mehta v. Union of India [Mehta II]
Equivalent citations: 1988 AIR 1115, 1988 SCR (2) 530
Petitioner: M.C. Mehta
Respondent: Union Of India & Ors
Date of Judgement: 12/01/1988
Bench: Venkataramiah, E.S. (J)

Background of the case 

Ganga is a trans-boundary river of Asia flowing through India and Bangladesh. It is one of the most sacred rivers to the Hindus and a lifeline to a billion Indians who live along its course. One of the most populated cities along its course is Kanpur. This city has a population of approx. 29.2 lakhs (2.9 million). At this juncture of its course Ganga receives large amounts of toxic waste from the city´s domestic and industrial sectors, particularly the leather tanneries of Kanpur.

In 1985, M.C. Mehta filed a writ petition in the nature of mandamus to prevent these leather tanneries from disposing off domestic and industrial waste and effluents in the Ganga river. This writ petition was bifurcated by the Supreme Court into two parts known as Mehta I and Mehta II.

Mehta I [M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, [1987] 4 SCC 463]–

Proceedings and Orders passed before final judgment –

In this petition the petitioner requested the court to request the Supreme Court (“the Court”) to restrain the respondents from releasing effluents into the Ganga river till the time they incorporate certain  treatment plants for treatment of toxic effluents to arrest water pollution.

At the preliminary hearing the Court directed the issue of notice under Order I Rule 8 of the CPC, treating this case as a representative action by publishing a small gist of the petition in the newspapers calling upon all the industrialists, municipal corporations and the town municipal councils having jurisdiction over the areas through which the river Ganga flows to appear before the Court and to show cause as to why directions should not be issued to them. In pursuance of this notice many industries and local authorities appeared before the Supreme Court.

The Court highlighted the importance certain provisions in our constitutional framework which enshrine the importance and the need for protecting our environment. Article 48-A provides that the State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country. Article 51-A of the Constitution of India, imposes a fundamental duty on every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life.

The Court stated the importance of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 (‘the Water Act’)[1]. This act was passed to prevent and control water pollution and maintaining water quality. This act established central and stated boards and conferred them with power and functions relating to the control and prevention of water pollution.

Section 24 of the Act prohibits the use of the use of any ‘stream’ for disposal of polluting matter. A ‘stream’ under section 2(j) of the Act includes river, water course whether flowing or for the time being dry, inland water whether natural or artificial, sub-terrene waters, sea or tidal waters to such extent or as the case may be to such point as the State Government may by the notification in the official gazette may specify. The Act permits the establishment of Central Boards and State Boards. Section 16 and Section 17 of the Act describe the power of these boards.

One of the functions of the State Board (‘the Board’) is to inspect sewage or trade effluents, plants for treatment of sewage and trade effluents, data relating to such plants for the treatment of water and system for the disposal of sewage or trade effluent.

What is a ‘Trade Effluent’?

A Trade Effluent is any substance in the form of solid, liquid or gaseous state which is discharged from any establishment used for carrying out any trade or industrial activity, other than domestic sewage. The State Boards are also responsible for laying down the standards for treatment of such trade effluents. Further, the Water Act also empowers the Board to make an application to the courts for restraining pollution of water in streams and wells.

The Court also relied on the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986[2]. Section 3 of this Act confers power on the Central Government to take effective steps for the protection and improving the quality of the environment and preventing environmental pollution. ‘Environment’ means water, air, and land and the inter-relationship which exists among the water, air and human beings. Section 3(2)(iv) of this Act empowers the Central Government to lay down standards for emission or discharge of pollutants. The Central Government is empowered to issue directions in writing to any person or authority to comply with such directions. Such directions may include closure, prohibition or regulation of any industry, operation or process or stoppage or regulation supply of electricity or water or any other service. Section 15 contains provisions relating to penalties that may be imposed for the contravention of any of the provision of this Act.

The Court noted the observations of the Fiscal Plan for setting up common Effluent treatment Plants for Indian Tanning Industry prepared by committee constituted by the Directorate General of Technical Development (Government of India).  The Committee noted that leather industry is one of the major industries besides paper and textiles consuming large quantities of water. Most of the water used is discharged as waste water. The waste water contains toxic substances which deplete the Oxygen content of the clean river water in which they are discharged. This results in death of aquatic life and emanate foul odor.

The court referred to ‘an Action Plan for Prevention of Pollution of the Ganga’ prepared by the Department of Environment, Government of India which states that Ganga flows through eight states of India and it is one of the most important rivers of India. However it gets severely polluted when it passes through many of the grossly populated cities in these states. The main sources of pollution in the river Ganga are Sewage, Industrial run-off of cultivated land where cultivators use chemical fertilizers and pesticides and industrial solid wastes. This Action Plan further stated that under the laws of the land the responsibility for treatment of the industrial effluents is that of the industry.

The respondents stated that the tanneries discharge trade effluents, leads to a sewage which further leads to the Municipal Sewage Plant before they are thrown into the river. It was not disputed by any of the tanneries that the water in the river Ganga was polluted by the effluents discharged by the tanneries. Some tanneries had already set up the effluent treatment plants and some were engaged in the construction of the primary treatment plants. However, the respondents argued that it would not be possible for them to have the secondary system for treating wastewater as that would involve enormous expenditure which the tanneries themselves would not be able to meet.

Final judgment–

The Court held the despite the above-stated provisions in the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 Act no effective steps were taken by the State Board to prevent the discharge of effluents into the river Ganga. Also, despite the provisions in the Environment Protection Act, no effective steps were taken by the Central Government to prevent the public nuisance caused by the tanneries at Kanpur.

The Court ordered the tanneries to establish primary treatment plants if not Secondary treatment plants. That is the minimum which the tanneries should do in the circumstances of the case.

The Court further held that the financial capacity of the tanneries should be considered as irrelevant while requiring them to establish primary treatment plants. Just like an industry which cannot pay minimum wages to its workers cannot be allowed to exist a tannery which cannot set up a primary treatment plant cannot be permitted to continue to be in existence for the adverse effect on the public at large which is likely to ensue by the discharging of the trade effluents from the tannery to the river Ganga would be immense and it will outweigh any inconvenience that may be caused to the management and the labour employed by it on account of its closure.

Mehta II (M.C. Mehta v. Union of India decided on 12th January, 1988)

Proceedings and Orders passed before final judgment –

This petition was taken up by the Court against the municipal bodies, the Kanpur Nagar Mahapalika in this case.

The Supreme Court noted that the Kanpur Nagar Mahapalika was established under the Uttar Pradesh Nagar Mahapalika Adhiniyam, 1959.The duties and powers of the Mahapalika and Mahapalika authorities are set out in Chapter V of the Adhiniyam. Clauses (iii) (vii) and (viii) of Section 114 of the Adhiniyam, which incorporates the obligatory duties of the Mahapalika.

Section 114 of the Adhiniyam states, “It shall be incumbent on the Mahapalika to make reasonable an adequate provision, by any means (sic) which it is lawfully competent to it to use or to take, for each of the following matters, namely;-

(iii) the collection and removal of sewage, offensive matter and rubbish and treatment and disposal thereof including establishing and maintaining farm or factory:

(vii) the management and maintenance of all Mahapalika waterworks and the construction or acquisition of new works necessary for a sufficient supply of water for public and private purposes.

(viii) guarding from pollution water used for human consumption and preventing polluted water from being so used.”

The Court also relied on Section 251, 388, 396, 398, 405 and 407 of the Adhiniyam which provide provisions for disposal of sewage, prohibition of cultivation, use of manure, or irrigation injurious to health, power to require owners to clear away noxious vegetation and power of the Mukhya Nagar Adhikari to inspect any place at any time for the purpose of preventing spread of dangerous diseases. These provisions deal with the duties of the Nagar Mahapalika or the Mukhya Nagar Adhikari appointed under the Adhiniyam with regard to the disposal of sewage and protection of the environment.

These provisions governing the local bodies indicate that the Nagar Mahapalikas and the Municipal Boards are primarily responsible for the maintenance of cleanliness in the areas of their jurisdiction. The Court also relied on the provisions of the Water Act which provide the meaning of pollution, sewage effluent, stream and trade effluents.

Sections 3 and 4 of the Water Act provide for the establishment of the Central and State Boards. A State Board was constituted under Section 4 of the Water Act in the State of Uttar Pradesh.

 Section 16 of the Water Act sets out the functions of the Central Board and Section 17 of the Water Act lays down the functions of the State Board. The functions of the Central Board are primarily advisory and supervisory in character. The Central Board is also required to advise the Central Government on any matter concerning the prevention and control of water pollution and to co-ordinate the activities of the State Boards. The Central Board is also required to provide technical assistance and guidance to the State Boards, carry out and sponsor investigations and research relating to problems of water pollution and prevention, control or abatement of water pollution. The functions of the State Board are more comprehensive. In addition to advising the State Government on any matter concerning the prevention, control or abatement of water pollution, the State Board is required among other things (i) to plan a comprehensive programme for the prevention, control or abatement of pollution of streams and wells in the State and to secure the execution thereof; (ii) to collect and disseminate information relating to water pollution and the prevention, control or abatement thereof; (iii) to encourage, conduct and participate in investigations and research relating to problems of water pollution and prevention, control or abatement of water pollution; (iv) to inspect sewage or trade effluents, works and plants for the treatment of sewage and trade effluents; (v) to review plans, specifications or other data relating to plants set up for the treatment of water, works for the purification thereof and the system for the disposal of sewage or trade effluents or in connection with the grant of any consent as required by the Water Act; (vi) to evolve economical and reliable methods of treatment of sewage and trade effluents, having regard to the peculiar conditions of soils, climate and water resources of different regions and more especially the prevailing flow characteristics of water in streams and wells which render it impossible to attain even the minimum degree of dilution; and (vii) to lay 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.

Sections 20, 21 and 23 of the Water Act confer power on the State Board to obtain information necessary for the implementation of the provisions of the Water Act, to take samples of effluents and to analyze them and to follow the procedure prescribed in connection therewith and the power of entry and inspection for the purpose of enforcing the provisions of the Water Act.

Section 24 of the Water Act prohibits the use of stream or well for disposal of polluting matters etc. contrary to the provisions incorporated in that section.

Section 32 of the Water Act confers the power on the State Board to take certain emergency measures in case of pollution of stream or well. Where it is apprehended by a Board that the water in any stream or well is likely to be polluted by reason of the disposal of any matter therein or of any likely disposal of any matter therein, or otherwise, the Board may under Section 33 of the Water Act make an application to a court not inferior to that of a Presidency Magistrate or a Magistrate of the first class, for restraining the person who is likely to cause such pollution from so causing.

The Court relied on a common law principle which states that Municipal Corporation can be restrained by an injunction in an action brought by a riparian owner who has suffered on account of the pollution of the water in a river caused by the Corporation by discharging into the river insufficiently treated sewage from discharging such sewage into the river.

In the case of Pride of Derby and Derbyshire Angling Association v. British Celanese Ltd[3], the Derby Corporation admitted that it had polluted the plaintiff’s fishery by discharging into it insufficiently treated sewage. According to the Derby Corporation Act, 1901 it was under a duty to provide a sewerage system, and that the system which had accordingly been provided had become inadequate solely from the increase in the population of Derby.

The Court noted that M.C. Mehta is not a riparian owner. Nevertheless he is a person interested in protecting the lives of the people who make use of the water flowing in the river Ganga. Therefore, his right to maintain the petition cannot be disputed.The nuisance caused by the pollution of the river Ganga was held to be a public nuisance.

Final judgment –

  • The Court directed the Kanpur Nagar Mahapalika to take appropriate action under the provisions of the Adhiniyam for the prevention of water pollution in the river. It was noted that a large number of dairies in Kanpur were also polluting the water of the river by disposing waste in it. The Supreme Court ordered the Kanpur Nagar Mahapalika to direct the dairies to either shift to any other place outside the city or dispose waste outside the city area.
  • Kanpur Nagar Mahapalika was ordered to increase the size of sewers in the labour colonies and increase the number of public latrines and urinals for the use of poor people.
  • Whenever applications for licenses to establish new industries are made in future, such applications shall be refused unless adequate provision has been made for the treatment of trade effluents flowing out of the factories.

The above orders were made applicable to all Nagar Mahapalikas and Municipalities which have jurisdiction over the area through which the Ganga river flows.

In addition to this, the Supreme Court further relied on Article 52A (g) on the Constitution of India, which imposes a fundamental duty of protecting and improving the natural environment. The Court order that –

1)  It is the duty of the Central Government to direct all the educational institutions throughout India to teach at least for one hour in a week lessons relating to the protection and the improvement of the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife in the first ten classes.

2)   The Central Government shall get text books written for the said purpose and distribute them to the educational institutions free of cost. Children should be taught about the need for maintaining cleanliness commencing with the cleanliness of the house both inside and outside, and of the streets in which they live. Clean surroundings lead to healthy body and healthy mind. Training of teachers who teach this subject by the introduction of short term courses for such training shall also be considered. This should be done throughout India.


[1]The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, No. 6, Acts of Parliament, 1974 (India).

[2]The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, No. 29, Acts of Parliament, 1986 (India).

[3]Pride of Derby and Derbyshire Angling Association v. British Celanese Ltd.[1953] Cha 149