Tribune News Service
Dehradun, April 24
Few people know that the first environment case in the country to be heard by the Supreme Court was linked to the environmentally fragile Doon Valley.
As a nature’s gift, the Doon Valley had numerous water streams emanating from limestone aquifers that were present in a good number in the region. But unscientific mining and unbridled cutting of trees in the late fifties and early sixties wreaked havoc on the local conditions and greatly altered the ecosystem.
Limestone mining operations in the Doon Valley became widespread during the decade between 1955 and 1965 with many leases granted in 1962. The adverse impact of uncontrolled mining started to be felt in the decade following 1965. By early 1980s, the valley had not only lost its natural beauty but also become prone to landslides, flash floods, water shortage, rising temperatures and falling crop production.
Under such circumstances, local NGO Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) founded by Avdhash Kaushal took the initiative. It fought the limestone quarries case, which was the first environment case in the country to be heard by the Supreme Court.
During five years from July 14, 1983, when the court first directed registration of a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution (Right to Life), to August 30, 1988, when the Supreme Court pronounced the final judgment for the closure of 101 mines in the area, the issues of economic development and environment preservation were the subjects to be most keenly examined.
This was the first event of its kind in the country. A fierce legal battle was fought between the affected residents on the one side, and the rich limestone contractors, powerful industrialists and even the government, on the other, bringing into sharp focus the conflict between development and conservation.
The case served to emphasise the need to reconcile the conflict between development and conservation in the larger interest of the country. Voluminous material was placed before the court and momentous issues arose for decision. The arguments used by RLEK before the Supreme Court were instrumental in passing of the Environment Protection Act in 1986. These were also a precursor to similar ideas discussed and given importance later at the UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio De Janeiro in 1992.
RLEK, after having won the historic environmental battle in the Supreme Court, decided to harness the energies of the youth to rejuvenate abandoned mines and denuded foothills. “With voluntary help from both local and outside volunteers, we promoted reforestation in the Doon Valley. The afforestation programme of RLEK became a feature of many a ‘school curriculum’ as groups of children dug pits, planted saplings and fenced areas. After some years, the ecological balance of bare hillsides, including the Sahastradhara springs in Dehradun district, was partially restored,” says Avdhash Kaushal, chairperson of RLEK.
“We did not rest on laurels and continued with our crusade for environment conservation. We subsequently waged a struggle against cement factories in Dehradun district that were causing a serious damage to the health of the people and adversely affecting the ecological balance due to a high level of toxic emissions,” Kaushal said. RLEK successfully went through lower courts to the Supreme Court demanding the closure of the polluting factories that were violating the fundamental rights of local people, he added.
Significantly, the then Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board had withdrawn permission to these factories to continue production because of their failure to comply with the pollution control rules. “But despite this and the then Prime Minister’s personal intervention, the factories continued to blow out clouds of smoke affecting visibility in the area and choking the lungs of residents,” he argued.
The Supreme Court ordered the closure of these polluting units. The Supreme Court decision in this particular case set a precedent for enabling residents to file a case against a polluting unit irrespective of whether it is complying with or violating specifications of the Air Pollution Act. The polluting units were closed on the court order on the intervention of RLEK.
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