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Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs Union of India Case Brief

Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs Union Of India & Ors on 28 August, 1996 Case Summary

Factual Matrix of the Case

Petitioner ‘Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum’ filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) under Article 32 of the Constitution. This petition was filed against the large-scale environmental degradation and water pollution caused due to excessive release of untreated effluents by the tanneries and other industries in Tamil Nadu into the river Palar.

River Palar was the main source of potable water for the livelihood of the surrounding people in the tanneries belt. These pollutants were also discharged in their nearby agricultural fields, waterways, open lands and even road-sides.

Later on it was discovered that approximately 35,000 hectares of agricultural land has turned entirely or partially barren and not fit for cultivation by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University Research Centre, Vellore.

This case was decided by the Apex Court in the year 2016. This is one of the landmark cases whereby the Supreme Court critically analysed the relationship between environment and industrial development and entrenched the principle of preventive methodology in environmental protection.

Issue Raised in the Case

Whether the tanneries should be permitted to keep on working at the expense of environment and health & lives of lakhs of individuals?’, this was the issue that arose in this case before the Supreme Court.


1. Petitioner

The Learned Counsel of the Petitioner pleaded before the court that the whole surface and subsoil water of river Palar has been intoxicated by the discharge of untreated effluents from the tanneries. Because of this inhabitants of this region are not able to get potable/consumable water easily.

The petitioner submitted the report of a survey conducted by Peace Members, a non-governmental organization. It covered 13 towns of Dindigal and Peddiar Chatram Anchayat Unions and revealed that out of the 467 wells used for drinking and irrigation, 350 wells had been polluted.

It was expressed that groundwater has also been contaminated by percolation because the people of these villages faced an acute shortage of water, and the women & children had to walk miles away to get drinking water for their families.

Petitioner submitted another report which was a survey conducted by lawyers M.R. Ramanan and P.S. Subramaniam on the Legal Aid and Advice Board of Tamil Nadu’s request. It was conducted in Solur village. It stated that 176 chemicals were found in the tannery effluents. About 40 liters of water is required to process only 1 kilogram of leather. Thus, the amount of harmful effluents generated by the tanneries is shockingly excessive.

Apart from this, a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University Research Center, Vellore, showed that approximately 35,000 hectares of land in the tanneries belt had been rendered unfit for cultivation either totally or partially.

Most importantly it was contended that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the government had been urging the tanneries for about the last ten years to set up either a Common Effluent Treatment Plant for a group of themselves or set up their separate effluent treatment plants. The Central Government also said that it would provide subsidies for the establishment of Common Effluent Treatment Plants. But still, most of the tanneries were functioning without treatment plants.

2. Respondent

Learned counsel for the tanneries contended that the standard with respect to Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) fixed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board was not legitimized.

But the Court requested the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) on April 9, 1996 to inspect this matter and give its opinion about it. And in its report, NEERI legitimized the models stipulated by the Board.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF) has not completely set down models for inland surface water release for Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), sulphates, and chlorides. The individual State Pollution Control Boards according to the prerequisites based on nearby site conditions have choice on these matters.

The guidelines of the TNPCB for inland surface water release can be met for tannery squander waters cost-viably through appropriate embed control gauges in tanning activity, and normally structured and viably worked wastewater treatment plants (ETPs and CETPs).


After hearing the contentions made by both the parties, the Supreme Court expressed that efforts should be undertaken to maintain a harmony between environment and industrial development.

It was observed by the court that the tanneries are one of the major foreign exchange sources and also create employment. But, it also harms and wrecks the environment. Thus in order to create balance between environmental and industrial development court ruled in the following way –

  1. The Supreme Court ruled that the tanneries should be shut down until and unless they have set up the required pollution control devices.
  2. It further added that once these devices are set up, tanneries can approach the Tamil Nadu Pollution Board and then reopen the tanneries after getting consent from the board.
  3. It directed all the tanneries in the district of North Arcot Ambedkar, Dindigul Anna, Erode Periyar, Chengai M.G.R. and Trichi to deposit a fine of Rs.10,000 each in the Collector office.
  4. It also directed that the State of Tamil Nadu should award Mr. M. C. Mehta a sum of Rs.50,000 as a token of appreciation towards the endeavours and efforts made by him in order to protect the environment.
  5. It also emphasized on the formation of Green Benches to deal with the issues related to environment protection for quick and speedy removal of these cases.

The Supreme Court coordinated the Central Contamination Control Board and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to mutually review the territory on war-balance. According to the court –

  1. It ordered that the tanneries either straightforwardly or through educated insight may approach the Pollution Control Boards or show that their individual units have set-up/built the important contamination Control devices.
  2. It directed the Pollution Control Boards to review the Units and document a report in this regard before May 6, 1996.
  3. It also coordinated that the Units which are not in a situation to develop the treatment devices within this period may move to the Board when they complete the devices.
  4. It ordered that the North Arcot District and Chennai MGR District Association and different Associations of the Tanners will bear the costs of the review groups sorted out by the Boards.

The Court directed the Central Government to constitute an authority as envisaged by Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

  1. It laid down the composition and the functions of this authority to implement the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle.
  2. According to the court, it shall compute the amount of compensation payable by a polluter both for payment of compensation to the individuals or families affected and the cost needed to reverse the environment’s damage.
  3. It also declared that if the polluter refuses to pay the amount of compensation, then the authority shall direct the industry’s closure.
  4. As per the directions given, the Central Government constituted an authority named the ‘Loss of Ecology (Prevention and Payments of Compensation) Authority.’

Case Analysis 

As per the preamble of the Environment Act, its main aim is to establish an authority under section 3(3) of the Act to secure the environment by controlling contamination of the environment.

But, unfortunately there is no such authority established till date consisting of the Central Government to control the contamination of the environment.

This work of establishing an authority has to be done by an expert. But as it is not the case, it is being accomplished by the Supreme Court through the above case.

If the tanneries are allowed to proceed with their work in five regions of Tamil Nadu then all waterways will be contaminated and the occupants of the territory will be exposed to infections. Thus, it was important for the court to guide the Central Government to make prompt moves under the provisions of the Environment Act.

Every individual is entitled to natural air, clean water and a contamination-free environment. The tanneries in the said area violated these rights of individuals. Thus, the court had ordered the tanneries to pay the fine to affected inhabitants and also pay the expense of re-establishing the deteriorated nature.

Concurring Opinion

This is one of the landmark judgments given by the Supreme Court of India on the matters of protection of environment.

The Supreme Court applied the concept of Sustainable development while passing judgement on the said matter. It applied this concept through the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle.

It correctly pointed out that it is not right to do development of industries at the cost of health and lives of people and hence it should not be permitted.

Sustainable development means that the needs of the present generation should be fulfilled without harming or destroying the environment and natural resources needed for the future generation.

Thus by keeping this view of balancing industrial development and environmental protection in mind, the court ruled out accordingly.

Also, by keeping the polluter pay principle in mind the court ordered the fine. As it is important that whoever has polluted the environment and caused damage to it must compensate the damaged property or person.


Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs Union Of India & Ors on 28 August, 1996, AIR 1996 SC 2715: (1996) 5 SCC 647

The Environment (Protection) Act,1986, Section 3(3)

This case brief has been written by Bhargavi Mundhe, from Shankarrao Chavan Law College.  


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