Recall Value:

A Dummy’s Guide to Saving National Treasures


19th February, 2021

Written by Suryansh Srivastava

Artwork by Suryansh Srivastava

It was at a social gathering that a gentleman walked up to MC Mehta and said, “You lawyers are all very greedy”. Mehta was taken aback. Having never seen him before, he politely inquired what the gentleman was talking about. Having made an interesting first impression, to say the least, he briefly summarised his problem: “The Taj Mahal is dying, it is a monument I deeply admire and nobody is interested in saving it”. This encounter with a man who Mehta has never seen again proved to be the birth of a remarkable fight. 


Padma Shri Mahesh Chandra Mehta is hailed as a pioneer of environmental activism in India. He has single-handedly managed to win numerous landmark judgments from the country’s Supreme Court since 1984. This included the introduction  of lead-free gasoline to the country and reducing the industrial emissions which were polluting river Ganga and eroding the Taj Mahal.


Interestingly, it was when Mehta had given up his law practice that he first learned about Taj’s marble cancer. This malignant disease was caused by acidic rain and atmospheric pollution, both of which were not common knowledge back in the day. When Mehta visited the 10,400 square kilometre Taj trapezium, he discovered that the Mathura Refinery was the primary cause of pollution in the area along with significantly smaller factories. Moreover, the Mathura refinery alone would generate 800-900 kilograms of carbon every hour, the totality of which was directed towards the Taj. On further inspection, it was found that the monument’s yellow cancer may kill it within a century if the onslaught of this toxic emission continued. 

Home to 255 nationally protected monuments and 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Taj trapezium and Agra were codependent. Hence, Mehta argued that saving the Taj essentially meant saving everything else. 


When Mehta appeared in the court, the bench refused to listen to the case stating that the state and central governments should look into the matter. The judges argued that India, a poor country, has already spent too much money on building and maintaining the refinery and factories. They felt that it would be not in the interest of the State to bring them to the task. 

“Your Lordships have two duties”, Mehta countered. “The first, as citizens of this country, it is your duty to protect its cultural heritage and environment. You have failed that. And the second duty is to deliver justice and the court is denying that to me”.


On receiving permission, he argued for over thirty minutes, convincing the presiding justice to issue a notice in the matter.


An opposition lobby sprouted to foil Mehta’s efforts. His effigies were burnt and his demands criticized. In addition to this backlash, the Government of India took a stern stance stating that it was impossible to change the fuel pattern of the Mathura refinery primarily because the nearest pipeline was around 400-500 miles away from it and that this would incur a great deal of expenditure and cost the refinery a lot of time. 

The rule allows for only 800 animals to be slaughtered in a day. However, slaughterhouses would kill over 20,000. The group intervened and with the help of Mehta and in the first move of its kind, shut slaughterhouses in New Delhi for about six months. 

It took Mehta 12 years to fight the case alone at the Supreme Court and win. The court ordered the closure of several polluting industries in the area unless they switch to clean fuel. As a result, carbon emission from the Mathura refinery came down to 87 kg per hour as opposed to 900 kg per hour. 


Then on, Mehta has taken up innumerable cases involving gross violations of human rights caused by environmental destruction and man-made ecological imbalance. 


In 1984, the Union Carbide Bhopal Gas tragedy shook the nation. The country was barely recovering from the aftermath of an unimaginable catastrophe when a year later, New Delhi witnessed another industrial mishap. On a winter night, hazardous oleum gas leaked from the Shriram Industry Unit in the densely populated Kirti Nagar neighbourhood of the capital. One advocate fell victim while multiple were hospitalized. Mehta filed a PIL under Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution and sought closure and relocation of the Shriram Caustic Chlorine and Sulphuric Acid Plant. 


Justice PN Bhagwati, the presiding judge, held that while the safety of citizens is of utmost importance, complete closure of the factory would render over 4000 workers jobless. Additionally, the Shriram plant supplied chlorine to Delhi Water Supply. The bench ruled that the victims deserve a hefty compensation but the judgement is remembered for establishing absolute liability. Absolute Liability states that if a person who brings on to his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do harm and such thing escapes and does damage to another he is liable to compensate for the damage caused. Effectively setting the  precedence that the liability in such cases is strict and it is no defence that the thing escaped without the person's willful act, default, or neglect (MC Mehta V. Union of India and Others, 1986).

As cities in India faced the violation of every single environmental norm, MC Mehta’s struggle to legally tackle ecological degradation continued. However, even judicial recourse was laced with corruption and bureaucratic lethargy. 


MC Mehta has also served as the legal counsel for Maneka Gandhi’s Animal rights group People for Animals. A significant case dealt with slaughterhouses in Delhi. According to Gandhi, a slaughterhouse, irrespective of its ownership, breaks every possible law. It was deemed as a “filthy, dirty, illegal business”. The rule allows for only 800 animals to be slaughtered in a day. However, slaughterhouses would kill over 20,000. The group intervened and with the help of Mehta and in the first move of its kind, shut slaughterhouses in New Delhi for about six months. 


Although the Kuldeep Singh ruling failed to permanently disable slaughterhouses from their illegal activities, Gandhi and Mehta successfully alleviated a number of slaughterhouses from their pathetic, unsanitary conditions for at least two years. Gandhi describes Mehta as not only a great public service lawyer but also an attorney who does their homework.