Mumbai: Taking a stern view on public authorities flouting air pollution norms while undertaking public projects like those for the bullet train, metro, Coastal Road and Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), the Bombay High Court said it would not hesitate to shut down everything if it came to saving the lives of people.
The high court has asked the state and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) to consider undertaking an audit of all the industries in the city and take strict action against those found violating or deviating from norms.
A report was submitted by the MPCB, pursuant to the HC's order last December, providing details of action taken against construction sites which were found violating or deviating from air pollution mitigation norms. After going through the report, a division bench of Chief Justice D K Upadhyaya and Justice Girish Kulkarni remarked that all the major public project sites had flouted air pollution norms.
The chief justice remarked that the MPCB had, after inspecting the bullet train project site at the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) in November 2023, found several discrepancies and hence issued a stopwork notice, which was withdrawn on December 15.
Another inspection was undertaken at the site on December 29, which found that several norms were still not complied with and yet, only a showcause notice was issued. The contractor has not replied to show cause notice as yet.
“What is the improvement, the situation has rather worsened. It is an ongoing work that does not justify them brazenly flouting the norms,” the chief justice said.
Five Major Projects Responsible For Pollution
When Advocate General Birendra Saraf pointed out that the discrepancies were minor, like a 20-foot tin barricade instead of 25 feet, the bench said there was no justification for violating norms. Senior advocate Darius Khambata, who was appointed as amicus curiae (friend of court), pointed out that as per the MPCB report, there are five major public project works going on in the city, which are major contributors to the pollution. Khambata said the report had flagged non-compliance of norms by contractors who had undertaken the task of road concretisation.
“Let it shut down. If it is to save the lives of people, we will shut it down,” the CJ quipped.
Saraf assured the court that the state, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the MPCB were taking all the steps necessary to mitigate air pollution.
However, the bench questioned whether enough steps were being taken and remarked that it was the constitutional duty of all the public bodies to protect the environment, public health and sanitisation.
“Whatever you are doing, is your job. You say that so much is done but it's not enough. State and BMC are public authorities. They can't shirk away from their responsibility. That won't absolve them of their duties,” the CJ added.
The bench said that conditions had not improved since October last, since it had been monitoring the situation. “Condition has not improved since October. We will tell you very frankly. Situation is going to be very, very unhealthy. We will not survive. This should not be a concern of the court alone,” CJ remarked.
“Coastal Road and Bullet Train projects being carried (out) by public bodies, why couldn't they put a simple shed of 25 feet? This cannot be checked by BMC and other authorities?” the bench asked.
The bench said that putting up of sheds would not stop pollution, but wondered why site managers couldn't ensure that it was done. “Situation is very alarming. If you dont come alive to situation now, we dont know what is going to happen,” the CJ underlined.
Issues At Different Project Sites
At the MTHL site, it was noticed that there was heavy dust and water sprinkling and the washing of roads was not undertaken. At the Mumbai Metro sites at BKC and Girgaum, barricading was not done properly, the court noted in its order.
As far as the Coastal Road was concerned, the report stated that enough mist guns were not deployed. Also, the excavated debris was lying uncovered at the site, the bench said in its order.
The court recorded the statements of BMC counsel Milind Sathe and advocate Joel Carlos that a Government Resolution was issued on February 5 whereby a high level coordination committee had been constituted for taking up a multi-pronged approach targeting various sources of pollution and measures for control in the MMR.
“We find it difficult to observe that requisite steps have been taken in adequate measure, though a lot appears to have been done by authorities,” the bench said, adding, “While observing so, we are conscious of fact that the air pollution can be a problem which cannot get mitigated in a day and that it needs continuing effort by the authorities.”
“However, we find that more effective steps are required to be taken by all concerned, to reduce AP in the city,” the bench concluded, while keeping the matter for hearing on March 18.