Within India’s judicial interpretation of constitutional rights there exists a close link between environmental values and human rights. Yet in some instances court cases defending the right to a clean environment have actually jeopardized the job security of India's poorest laborers and have led to abuses of human rights. One such example is the 1995 Supreme Court case MC Mehta v. Union of India, which ordered the closure and relocation of polluting industries in Delhi. In this instance the Court responded to middle-class appeals for pollution remediation through a broad reading of the constitution’s fundamental right to life principle, at the same time adversely affecting tens, even hundreds, of thousands of the city’s poorest workers.
The spotty interest of the government’s legislative and executive branches in addressing the environmental problems created by both private and public sector development initiatives has provided the impetus for legal activism in India. Parliament has enacted environmental legislation, but enforcement has been profoundly lax, and governmental pollution control boards have been lenient in regulating industrial and vehicular emissions and industrial and municipal waste treatment facilities. Moreover, projects involving air and water pollution, massive human displacement, and the destruction of natural ecosystems continue to go forward with the imprimatur of formal administrative approval, based on only perfunctory or formalistic compliance with regulatory norms.
In the 1995 case cited above, environmental lawyer M. C. Mehta argued that Delhi industries and government agencies were not abiding by the city’s zoning regulations spelled out in the Delhi Master Plan. The Master Plan, published in 1990, had divided the city into functionally segregated zones and prohibited hazardous and small-scale industries from operating in many of these. India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mehta, directing hundreds of hazardous and small-scale industries operating in “non-conforming areas” to relocate outside the metropolitan region at the periphery of the larger National Capital Region (NCR). The ruling appeared to be as much about depopulating the city (of its urban poor) as it was about improving air and water quality. As the Court noted:
The city has become a vast and unmanageable conglomeration of commercial, industrial, unauthorized colonies, resettlement colonies and unplanned housing with a total lack of open spaces and green areas. Once a beautiful city, Delhi now presents a chaotic picture. The only way to relieve the capital city from the huge additional burden and pressures is to deconcentrate the population, industries and economic activities in the city and relocate the same in various priority towns in the NCR.
Specifically, the justices ordered the Central Pollution Control Board and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee to identify all hazardous and non-conforming industries operating in the city. With little supporting data, the control boards drew up a series of lists, ultimately identifying 168 hazardous units targeted for closure. In an attempt to mitigate the negative effects of these closures, the justices included provisions for compensating workers — ordering, for example, that all relocating industries retain their workers at the new location, pay them their full wages, and pay one year’s wages as a “shifting bonus.” Those workers of industries that were closing but not relocating were to be paid one year’s wages. Very soon after this order was issued the media reported that industries were not paying the stipulated wages and compensation. When in late 1996 Birla Textiles announced its intention to lay off 2,800 employees, the justices further enhanced the compensation package by ordering that workers of closing but not relocating industries be given six years of wages instead of one. In addition, those workers “refusing” to relocate were entitled to one year’s wages. The court also directed that workers occupying residential quarters could continue to occupy them until “accommodation is provided or made available at the relocation sites” or they could “remain in the quarters for a period of one and a half years.”
Responding to the pleas of those workers left unemployed by the closures, the justices ordered industrialists to find them new work or absorb them in another factory. However, according to a study by Delhi-based sociologist Amita Baviskar, industrialists found it easy to circumvent the order on wages and compensation by laying off casual laborers or transferring only a portion of their permanent workers to the new location. Surveying workers at 100 of the 168 hazardous industries, the Delhi Social Rights Forum, a local NGO, found that 12,668 workers had lost their jobs. Overall, it is estimated that more than 250,000 people in Delhi (workers and their families) were directly affected by the loss of employment.
Rather than rectifying these problems, in 2001 the Court further exacerbated the situation by calling for the closure of all polluting and non-polluting industries that were located in residential areas but did not conform to the Delhi Master Plan. The Delhi administration and police force sealed 1,976 plants, dramatically increasing the number of laid off workers. This latest wave of closings provoked massive protest in the streets and at political rallies, and the media reported that two factory owners committed suicide. Others were forced into bankruptcy when their plants were sealed or because they could not afford to move or were not provided plots in the new industrial estates.
Daniel Meadows’ interviews with former hazardous industry laborers in 2002 and 2003 demonstrate that, despite the Court’s protective measures, the livelihoods of laborers were still being jeopardized. Many workers explained that they were never paid by the industries to move to a new location, nor were they offered work at the new location. For those working in industries that closed without relocating, about half received what they called their “due wages.” But when asked if they were paid as per the court order, they were unable to cite its provisions. Some interviewees claimed that their union representatives were still trying to represent them in court, to obtain their “due wages.” Further, many were informal or casual laborers who were not on official company payrolls. The Court’s protections did not address this class of laborers, so factory owners simply dismissed them without providing any wages at all. Throughout the closure process, the Court and government agencies failed to create a procedure for documenting the claims of all classes of laborers and for ensuring industrial compliance, and kept a large portion of the city labor force invisible on the official record. When asked, government officials cannot and do not produce records that verify industrialists’ compliance with the Court’s orders on wages and compensation.
Instead of promoting the right to life, this case allowed powerful interests in industry and government to use a pollution prevention policy to their advantage: while pollution control boards produced industry lists without adequate transparency, many industries shaved their labor force, reduced costs, and sold valuable assets in Delhi. Furthermore, the case also did little for environmental conditions, as it only shifted industrial polluters to new locations. In the rapidly growing periphery towns of the National Capital Region, waste management facilities are even less developed than they are in central Delhi, and authorities have so far failed to institute stricter regulations on emissions. Finally, in purporting to promote the right to life, this case ultimately undermined that very right through its negative impact on workers. As Baviskar explains, “Closing down polluting industries in the interests of protecting workers’ health, without providing them with safe alternate livelihoods, merely exchanges one form of vulnerability with another.”
NGOs in India such as the Hazard Center, the Delhi Social Rights Forum, Toxics Link, the Environmental Justice Initiative, and the Environment Support Group are arguing against policies and projects that disproportionately shift the “pollution prevention” burden to the poorest laboring class. Their seminars, protests, and legal interventions also address in an important way the deficiencies in regulating and monitoring industrial practices — practices that affect laborers, the middle class, and the environment. If government regulatory agencies and the Supreme Court continue to allow noncompliance to laborers’ rights and environmental regulations, the health and livelihoods of many will remain in jeopardy.