MAHESH CHANDRA MEHTA

Mahesh Chandra Mehta, famously known as M.C Mehta to law students, single-handedly won numerous landmark judgments like Taj Mahal case, Ganga pollution case, oleum gas leak case, Delhi sewage treatment plant case, Delhi ridge case etc. Mahesh Chandra Mehta was an environmental lawyer who campaigned for a healthier environment and won many awards for the same. He pressured polluters to pay for it and urged India’s media to bear environmental messages. In 1996, he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his ongoing battles against pollution-causing industries in Indian courts. He was also a public-interest lawyer. After completing his secondary high school from Rajouri High School, he moved to Jammu University to obtain a degree in Political Science and Law. After starting his career as a Supreme Court lawyer since 1983, he began to focus on environmental cases.

When M.C Mehta visited Taj Mahal for the first time in 1984, he noticed that the marble of the famous monument had turned black, and was stained by contaminants from Mathura Refinery, Iron Foundries, Glass, and other chemical industries. The Taj Mahal and 255 other historic monuments within the Taj trapezium were facing serious threats due to acid rain as a result of very high toxic emissions from those industries.  This spurred Mehta to file in India’s Supreme Court for his first environmental case. In December 1996, the SC gave the historic judgement and also directed to ban the usage of coal and coke by switching to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). The following year, Mehta learned that the Ganges River, considered to be the holiest river in India and used by millions of people every day for bathing and drinking water, caught fire due to industrial effluents in the river.

The river was getting polluted due to tanneries and shop factories in the banks of the river in Kanpur. Once again, Mehta filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the polluting factories, and the scope of the case was broadened to include all the industries and municipalities in the river basin[1]. Mehta’s group of cases reflects the right to a humane and healthy environment. Mehta filed lawsuits for the people affected or likely to be affected by any action or inaction on behalf of those. While his first case broadened the definition of the right to live and limited hazardous industrial practices with the goal of protecting people’s right to live in a safe environment, the third case developed a new jurisprudence of responsibility to the pollution victims caused by an industry engaged in hazardous and potentially harmful practices. The initial steps for incorporating a pollution-free environment under Article 21 of the constitution was taken up in the landmark judgment of Subhash Kumar v. State of state. Thereafter, SC concluded that life, public health, and ecology is entitled by the state in the case of M. C. Mehta v. Union of India. In the case of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs. the State of U.P., (Popularly known as Dehradun Quarrying Case), the right to live in a safe environment was recognized as part of Article 21 of the Constitution.  The concept of sustainable development was applied for the first time in the case of Vellore Citizens Forum v. Union of India. The landmark judgment of Oleum gas leak case established the principle of Absolute Liability.

Under this case, the fertilizer plant was very close to human dwelling, so, the court held that the fertilizer plant cannot be permitted to carry on a hazardous industry in such proximity to the population and ordered for its re-location. This judgment also marked a time of dramatic legislative advance in India. The Parliament added an entirely new chapter to the Factory Act of 1948 incorporating sections from the Judgment almost verbatim[2]. The Environmental Protection Act was established in the wake of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which took place in 1972 at Stockholm. It came into being under Article 253 of the Constitution of India.  In the Environmental awareness and education case, it was held that a minimum of 5 to 7 minutes of slides related to environment must be shown throughout the country to television programs & cinema theatres. Subjects related to environment became mandatory in every school & college.

The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 was enacted as a result of a rise in cases related to environmental degradation. In order to ease the burden on the apex court and to achieve effective and speedy disposal of cases, the parliament decided to enact the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010. The basic aim of this was to ease the backlog of cases and help in effective disposal of environment related issues. Moreover, it would help in preserving the nature, its flora and fauna, and help the individual to realise his basic right to a free, healthy and safe environment. The Supreme Court laid out the principle of Public Trust Doctrine in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath. Public trust doctrine basically means that all the natural resources like air, water, sea and forests are much more significant when enjoyed by the public as a whole and hence, it is unjustifiable to consider them as a subject of private ownership[3].

Mehta had succeeded in getting 40 landmark judgments and numerous orders from the Supreme Court against polluters, a record that may be unrivaled by any other environmental lawyer in the world. During the years that followed, a courtroom was set aside every Friday just for Mehta’s cases. From the above-discussed cases and the principles evolved from them, we conclude that MC Mehta has contributed immensely towards the environmental laws in India. Mehta is currently working with the M.C. Mehta Environmental Foundation, an NGO that provides training programs for aspiring environmental attorneys and runs numerous environmental justice campaigns[4]. As on 2016, he was awarded with Padma Shri. People like M.C. Mehta have been largely responsible to make a person realise that if it is important to fight for one’s fundamental rights, it is equally important to perform the fundamental duties one owes to the State. Our nation needs more activists and attorneys like Mahesh Chandra Mehta who realise the importance of preserving the ecosystem.


[1] MC Mehta – Goldman Environmental Foundation : Goldman Environmental Foundation (goldmanprize.org), visited on 31-08-2021 at 14:18hrs.

[2] Nehal Misra- How MC Mehta led to the formation of jurisdiction on environmental laws in India, How MC Mehta led to the formation of jurisdiction on environmental laws in India – iPleaders visited on 31-08-2021 at 14:28hrs.  

[3] AGAM BANSAL-ENVIRONMENTAL JURISPRUDENCE IN INDIA: ROLE OF M.C. MEHTA, ENVIRONMENTAL JURISPRUDENCE IN INDIA: ROLE OF M.C. MEHTA | RACOLB LEGAL, visited on 31-08-2021 at 16:17hrs.

[4] MC Mehta – Goldman Environmental Foundation : Goldman Environmental Foundation (goldmanprize.org), visited on 31-08-2021 at 15:07hrs.

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