The good of the cause

He has been burnt in effigy in Agra, people have threatened to "bash him up" others have offered him bribes to drop a case. Meet Mahesh Chander Mehta, India's one-man environment protection force.

Mahesh Chander Mehta remains undaunted. Best known for the Supreme Court decision which closed smoke-belching foundries in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal, Mehta's efforts have led to new policies and guidelines in India and expanded the scope of existing law to bring environmental protection within the constitutional framework. Winner of a slew of international awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service (1997), the activist has a far more creditable distinction which makes his colleagues go green with envy: the 52-year-old Delhi-based lawyer has never lost a case.

For someone who is perhaps the most famous environmental lawyer in India, it is ironic that Mehta did not set out to be either an environmentalist or a lawyer. Born one of eight children to a farming family in Jammu in northern India, Mehta had fairly conventional aspirations — he wanted to be a doctor. It was only after he failed to get into medical college that he studied law and political science. After practising at the Jammu High Court for 10 years, Mehta shifted to Delhi and the Indian Supreme Court in the early 1980s.

A remark at a party in 1983 that lawyers were too greedy a bunch to be interested in public causes like saving the Taj Mahal pushed Mehta towards environmental activism. He dug up press clippings, read books, and visited the Taj to see first hand what was happening to Shah Jahan's 400-year-old monument to love. The trip convinced him that Agra's air pollution was affecting the Taj's marble.

The biggest polluters, he discovered, were the small coke-burning iron foundries that dotted Agra. Six months of study later, Mehta filed a petition before the Supreme Court. Result: 200 factories were closed down and another 300 ordered to relocate. The Court also ruled that a green belt be created around the Taj Mahal, and a 23-km bypass constructed so that heavy traffic would not have to go into Agra city.

In his tiny office in his rented house, spilling over with files, books and trophies, there are two glass bottles, which are among Mehta's most cherished possessions. These bottles contain dirty brown liquid, samples of drinking water from Bichhri village in Rajasthan that were displayed as evidence before India's Supreme Court. In 1988, press reports began appearing in the Hindi media of a protest movement in the obscure village Bichhri, where people were falling sick and animals were dying. Mehta decided to take this up as his next challenge after the Taj. He found out that five small industries manufacturing pesticides and hydrochloric acid were discharging untreated effluents that had contaminated the entire groundwater of Bichhri and 14 other villages. He filed a petition in the Supreme Court against these factories and suddenly Bichhri was news.

Several environmental groups sent fact-finding missions to the village and started a sustained campaign to keep Bichhri in the national consciousness. The Supreme Court eventually closed down the factories and attached the property of the owner to recover funds to rehabilitate the area. It will take many more years before villagers can safely drink water from tubewells in Bichhri, but the situation would have been far worse had Mehta and the Supreme Court not swung into action.

A shrewd mind underpins Mehta's activism. He knows that environmental arguments alone will not win him cases. In the case of the Taj Mahal, there were those who criticised him for putting a monument before livelihoods.

"Saving the Taj is not only about cultural heritage or environment. It is also about economics," he says. Without the Taj, Agra would be just another grimy north Indian town, enveloped in dust, filth and noise. "Don't consider Taj Mahal as a monument alone. See it as an industry, a non-polluting one. If we preserve it, this industry will yield dividends for hundreds of years more. Calculate the foreign exchange it has earned in the last 50 years. It is a golden goose, why kill it? If we protect it, we will also protect 250 other historical monuments in the Taj trapezium, including three World Heritage sites."

The Taj Mahal draws more than four million people to Agra every year, 30 percent of whom are foreign tourists. Without the tourists, the taxi drivers, rickshaw-pullers and souvenir sellers of Agra would lose their jobs. The campaign to save the Taj had ensured a safety net for those at risk: the Court order stipulated that anyone sacked was to be given six years' wages and money.

Mehta also took up what some say is the hopeless cause of cleaning up the Ganga. After having proved in the Supreme Court that the Ganga is dangerously polluted, Mehta has now turned his attention to other rivers. The lawyer thinks India's biggest environmental problem is the impending water crisis, and the pollution of major rivers and groundwater.

Despite his successes, Mehta admits that judicial activism is necessary but not sufficient to bring about the changes he hopes for. "You need to create an environmental awareness among people so that they can protest." He predicts that the day is not far off when a "revolution will break out in India over such day-to-day issues as clean water, clean air". In the far corners of India, protest movements are already gathering momentum, and Mehta says what is needed is "coordination". He may be just the man for that job.

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Himal Southasian