Case Study: Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum v. Union of India

By Shashwat Srivastava 7 Minutes Read

Citation: AIR 1996 SC 2715

Date of Judgement: 28th August, 1996

Bench: J.Kuldip Singh, J. Faizan Uddin, J. K. Venkataswami


A Public Interest Litigation was filed by Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. The petition was filed against the enormous discharge of untreated effluent by the tanneries which lead to the pollution in the State of Tamil Nadu. The untreated effluent was discharged in the river Palar which is the main source of water supply in the area. These tanneries in Tamil Nadu caused environmental degradation in the area. A survey by Tamil Nadu Agriculture University Research Centre Vellore shows that nearly 35,000 hectares of agricultural land in the area becomes unfit for cultivation. Petition further states that the tanneries use about 170 types of chemicals in the chrome training process. These effluents have spoiled the physio-chemical properties of the soil, and have contaminated groundwater by percolation.

Importance of the case:

This is a landmark case where the Supreme Court critically analyzes the relationship between environment and development. The Court, in this case, decided in favor of petitioner on the following grounds:

  • Tamil Nadu is the leading exporter of finished leather accounting for approximately 80% of the country’s export. Though the leather industry is of vital importance to the country as it generated foreign exchange and provides employment avenues it has no right to destroy the ecology, degrade the environment, and pose as a health hazard.
  • The traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each of her. Is no longer acceptable. The answer is ‘Sustainable Development’, as a balancing concept between ecology and development and has been accepted by Customary International Law.
  • In the case of the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India[1], the Supreme Court held that the Polluter Pays principle is a sound principle. This principle as interpreted by the Court means that the absolute liability for harm to the environment extends not only to compensate the victims of pollution but also the cost of restoring the environmental degradation.
  • The precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle have been accepted as part of the law of the land. Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees protection of life and personal liberty. Apart from the constitutional mandate to protect and improve the environment there are plenty of post-independence legislations on the subject.

Key law points established in the case:

  • Whether the tanneries should be allowed to continue to operate at the cost of lives of lakhs of people?

The tanneries and other polluting industries in the State of Tamil Nadu are being persuaded for the last about 10 years to control the pollution generated by them. They were given the option either to construct common effluent treatment plants for a cluster of industries or to set up individual pollution control devices. It is a pity that till date most of the tanneries operating in the State of Tamil Nadu have not taken any step to Control the Pollution caused by the discharge of effluent.

This Court has been monitoring this petition for almost five years. The NEERI, Board and the Central Pollution Control Board (Central Board) have visited the tanning and other industries in the State of Tamil Nadu for several times. The NEERI reports indicate that even the seven operational CETPs are not functioning to its satisfaction. The Court states that no tanneries will be allowed to continue to operate except if this court is satisfied that the containment control devices have been setup either independently or in total by these tanneries and to check that this Court will rely on the expertise of Technical specialist like the Pollution Control Boards or NEERI.”

The main purpose of the Environment Act is to create an authority or authorities under Section 3(3) of the Act with adequate powers to control pollution and protect the environment. It is a pity that till date no authority has been constituted by the Central Government. The work which is required to be done by an authority in terms of Section 3(3) read with other provision of the Act is being done by this Court and the other Courts in the country. It is high time that the Central Government realises its responsibility and statutory duty to protect the degrading environment in the country.


  • The Supreme Court held that all the tanneries are liable to pay Pollution fine of Rs 10,000 to be deposited at the District Collector’s office. The fine along with compensation shall be deposited under ‘Environment Protection Fund’.
  • A ‘Green Bench’ was established in the supervision of the Chief Justice of Madras High Court to look after this mater and all the environment related issue. The bench will have power to issue appropriate direction or order keeping in view direction passed by the Supreme Court.
  • The Court appreciated the efforts of Mr. M. C. Mehta and directed the State of Tamil Nadu to grant him the sum of Rs. 50,000 for his assistance.

[1] 1996 AIR 1446.

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