Sukhna lake: The journey towards environmental personhood

THE SUKHNA LAKE OF CHANDIGARH

At the foothills of Himalaya, Architect Le Corbusier constructed a 3 km2rain fed Lake in the year 1958 by building a dam over the Sukhna Choe. The creators of this beautiful location, called the Sukhna Lake were trying to offer the people of Chandigarh a tranquil spot to enjoy some peaceful time and its ambience, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Over the years, it has become a favourite tourist spot, housing many restaurants, festivals, sports and adventurous activities. The lake is overlooked by the Mera Chandigarh administration and rules imposed by them. Earlier called the Chakraborty Lake, it has been declared as a protected national wetland by the Indian Government because of the presence of numerous exotic migratory birds like Siberian ducks.

TOWARDS EXTINCTION

The Lake was in destruction due to overgrowth of weeds, silting and fish catchments in it. In addition, a seasonal stream named the KansalChoe was found to be the reason for the lake’s reducing depth and size. To combat this issue, the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute appointed a team of professionals in 1975 headed by an Indian environmentalist – Parasu Ram Mishra. They worked under their ‘Sukhomajri’ project to educate the local population about how their activities resulted in environmental hazards. Three years later, the reports showed improvement in the nearby forest cover and quality of the lake due to actions undertaken by the team.

However, by 2005, the water capacity reduced to half of its original capacity along with shallowing of the lake. The UT Administration took steps like planting of endemic trees, construction of retention walls, check dams, counter trenching etc. This was effective in reducing soil erosion and damage by siltation.

Parts of the catchment area was declared as the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary and constant efforts from the part of the administration resulted in increase in the number and variety of wildlife in this region. Both flora and fauna improved over time.

In 2007, the Department of Environment appointed an expert group called the Society for Promotion And Conservation of Environment, which identified a successful reduction of siltation and also proposed massive afforestation and de-siltation by the end of 2010.

THE LEGAL VOYAGE - A TIMELINE

  • In November 2009, a Public Interest Litigation was commenced when the Punjab and Haryana High Court took cognizance of a letter addressed to it by Mr. Gautam Khanna in hisattempt to draw its attention towards the devastating condition of this water resource. The case was Court on its own motion and Ors.Vs.Chandigarh Administration and Ors.
  • Amicus Curiae Ms. TanuBediformulated a writ petition as per the Court’s directions to represent the cause. It addressed the serious issues like siltation, loss of water space, problem of weed overgrowth, floodgates at the regulatory end in the catchment area, depleting quality of water etc. Further contentions were made that the Chandigarh administration spent money on frivolous constructions around the lake while the Lake itself was reducing by length to a 1.5 km from a previous 2.5 km.
  • On 5-8-2010, the Chandigarh administration (respondents) were asked to file an answering report and its representative Adv. Sanjay Kaushal submitted that work was going on and many machineries were already employed at the site as an attempt to prevent and correct the silting process.
  • An order dated 26.04.2020 directed the UT administration to fasten this process. Meanwhile, the State of Punjab, Haryana and UT administrationthrough the Secretary of Forest and Environment Departments were madeparties to the case.
  • The Amicus Curiae made the Court aware of the fact that there were proposals of housing colonies to be built within the catchment area and in response to this; the State’s counsel ensured no violations of environmental norms as it respected the need to conserve the catchment areaand itsnatural resources. The counsels for all the respondents were asked to identify an authorized and abled body to undertake the de-siltation work at the Lake.
  • On 15-02-2011, the State of Haryana claimed that approx. 1055 Ha. of the catchment area falls within its territory and there were no proposals for construction in these regions. However, the Court asked for further explanations from Haryana’s Town and Country Planning Department.
  • Affidavit was filed by the Town and Country Planning department on 4.3.2011 explaining the plan of ‘Mata Masa Devi Urban Complex’. An examination of the maps showed how the area demarcated as Catchment area by the Surveyor General of India formed part of this plan. It was submitted that this space was declared as an ‘Open Space Zone’ with no construction proposals by the State of Haryana.
  • On 01.02.2011, the Chandigarh Administration filed an affidavit stating how it is fully aware and concerned about the worsening situation of the Lake, considering its importance in maintaining the aesthetics of the spot as well as the environmental diversity attached to it.
  • In 2012, there was a committee of experts appointed to demarcate the catchment area. Other meetings of experts as directed by the Court was conductedsimultaneously. Historical and present state of affairs regarding administration and protection of the lake was studied in depth and reports were prepared too. The Court identified multiple stakeholders in this case.
  • The general public was notified of the matter and was conveyed that no construction shall take place after 21.05.2012 in these catchment areas. Structures already set up were also notified and such information were placed in the record of Court.
  • Other residents of the area that came under the development plan also filed their separate affidavits and its content was noted to be similar to those filed by the administrations.
  • The National Institute of Hydrology and Management inRoorkee informed the counsels that if there were no suggestions from the part of the administrations; they shall make their draft report a final one with regard to the integrated hydrological investigation. Various stakeholders as well as the amicus curiae made suggestions.
  • Under Court’s order dated 22.11.2018, the Court Commissioner held an investigation to find out with multiple proofs that there were constructions happening in the restricted areas, supported by the State as potable water and electricity were provided by the State’s Departments.
  • The above findings were reiterated in an affidavit filed by an MLA. He also alleged that the government has been charging property taxes from the house owners located in thisKansal area since 2013.
  • In 2017, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change constituted the “Union Territory of Chandigarh Wetlands Authority”. On 18.01.2017, it notified hectares of land around the wildlife sanctuary as ‘Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary Eco-sensitive zone’. A Technical Committee was established by the 2018 order of the Court.
  • On 23.07.2019, the authority decided to declare the Sukhna Lake as Wetland under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 and directed the Governments of Punjab and Haryana to designate certain activities as ‘prohibited/protected/regulated.’

CRUX OF THE WRIT PETITIONS FILED

The two-Judge Bench of the SC was also answering the following writ petitions in its decision on 02.03.2020:-

  • In CWP No. 12355 of 2017, the petitioners were house owners located in the premises of the land in this case. According to their contention, their names were prepared arbitrarily and they were not informed properly by the authorities that their houses would be demolished soon until they received information from the general public. To this issue, the Court on 30.05.2017 had restrained the Municipal Council from conducting the demolition process.
  • A similar issue was put to the Court by way of CWP No. 12284 of 2017 by a registered association who did not receive individual notices regarding demolition of their constrictions in the Kansal area. The Court on 30.05.2017 restrained actions of demolition.
  • The villagers of Kansal also filed a CWP No. 12280 of 2017 stating that it was thickly populated and that they were unaware of the Master Plans of the State Governments.More importantly, they complained that there was no publicity given to the Court orders from time to time. On 30.05.2017, the Judge restrained the demolitions of their structures too.
  • COCP No. 3088 of 2015 and COCP No. 2613 of 2013were contempt petitions filed against the respondents for disobedience of court orders regarding demolition.
  • In CWP No. 5809 of 2015, the court took cognizance of the nuisance caused by stray dogs.

THE COURT’S REASONS AND FINDINGS

The Court examined numerous provisions of the following Acts and Rules:

  1. The Capital of Punjab(Development and Regulation) Act, 1952
  2. The Punjab Regional and Town Planning and Development Act, 1995
  3. The Punjab Regional and Town Planning and Development (General) Rules, 1955
  4. The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017
  5. Punjab New Capital (Periphery) Control Act, 1952
  6. Punjab New Capital (Periphery) Control Rules, 1959

Precedents appreciated by the court with regard to environmental protection concepts

  1. Anil Hon'ble vs. KashinathJairamShetye, (2016) 10 SCC 701 upheld the act of demolition of all the unauthorized buildings and constructions within the restricted areas, mainly in coastal and riverbed ecosystems.
  2. Lal Bahadur vs. State of Uttar Pradesh and Others  (2018) 15 SCC 407 explained in detail the duty of the Government to conserve environment, as provided under Articles 48A and 51A(g).
  3. Bangalore Medical Trust v. B.S. Muddappa& Ors. (1991) 4 SCC 54, the SC held that open spaces and public parks are important and they shall be conserved by the Government.
  4. In Animal and Environment Legal Defence Fund v. Union of India & Ors. (1997) 3 SCC 549, the SC emphasised on the Roman theory to observe the duty and public trust placed on authorities to preserve ecology.
  5. The public trust doctrine was held to have been breached in M.C Mehta v. Kamal Nathand the SC reflected this decision too. It also threw light on the fact that any violations to the basic necessities of life – clean air, water, soil and environment would amount to violation of Article 21.
  6. Vellore Citizens' Welfare Forum v. Union of India replaced the conventional concepts of development by providing an insight into the much better idea of striking a balance between ecology and development i.e., sustainable development.
  7. Right to clean, pollution-free air was included within the scope of Article 21 in the case of Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar.
  8. MC Mehta v. Union of India held that the duty of the State is wide enough for them to anticipate, prevent and attack any environmental degradation situations.
  9. Kerala State Coastal Zone Management Authority vs. State of Kerala, Maradu Municipality and Others, (2019) 7 Supreme Court Cases 248 was also examined since it ordered for the demolition of buildings in restricted Coastal Zones.

After thorough examination of all these judgments, the Court came to the conclusion that the defaulters who violated the Court order which restrained any kind of construction activities in the area, were well aware of the existing position and direction of the Court since it was circulated in various newspapers, among other reasons. The Court also rejected Punjab State’s argument that the Eco-sensitive zone should be reduced to a 100 meters span, on the ground of crucial duty of the government to protect ecology.

The Court went on to state that every lake has a birth and a death but mostly, the end of such waterbodies are fast approaching than normal due to its injudicious use for human purposes. Sukhna lake was more than a water body – it is an ecosystem by itself. The existence of migratory birds and natural siltation process demands active involvement of the Government as well as the Court to protect it.

The Doctrine Of ParensPatraie

The doctrine was first evoked in Mormon Church v. United States, (136 U.S. 1)emphasising on the right of the government or legislature to employ its divisions for the people. Several excerpts from US judgments like the Kansas v. Colorado, Missouri v. Illinois, Fontain v. Ravenel, Oklahoma ex. Rel. Johnson v. Cook, Massachusetts v. Mellon, Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co, Pensylvania v. West Virginia, North Dakota v. Minnesota, Wisconsin v. Illinois, Snapp and Son, inc. v. Puerto Rico ex. Rel. Barez., were taken to justify the Court’s proactive approach in this case. The term literally means “parent of the country” and this Common Law concept is as old as the royal prerogative that bestowed duty upon those in power to take care of people and their property.  Articles from Harvard Law Journal and Harvard Law Review by Michael L. Rustad and Margaret H.Lemos respectively were extracted to explain the dire need for the Court to act positively and vigorously towards the goal of environmental protection. Patrick Hayden’s article in the Yale Law Journal was also brought in to arrive at the decision. The Court also reasoned that government actions are often easier since there are no difficult procedural requirements to be followed, which applies to private class actions and went on in depth to draw a difference between public and private aggregate litogations.

On Moral Duty

Apart from the above duties placed by laws and Constitution, the Court also highlighted on our moral duties to protect the environment. It drew reference from the article ‘Morality, Law and Conflicting Reasons for Action’ written by Peter Cane published in the Cambridge Law Journal.

On Legal Personality

A Hindu idol was held as a juristic entity capable of holding property and of being taxed in the case of YogendraNathNaskar v. Commission of Income Tax, Calcutta 1969 (1) SCC 555. The SC had stated that the care and protection of the property of such idols should be placed on managers, who is required to take standard care and caution as they might have taken in the case of infant heirs. These Hindu images were further classified as self-existent (Sayambhu) and Prathishta in Ram Jankijee Deities & others v. State of Bihar & others 1999 (5) SCC 50, which stated that eventhough God was Omnipotent, Omniscient, formless and shapeless, a deity or idol could hold property in its name.  Moorti Shree Behariji v. PremDass others, AIR 1972 Allahabad 287, the Allahabad High Court stated that a deity had the right to sue as a pauper.

In Shiromani GurudwaraPrabandhak Committee, Amritsar v. Shri SomNathDass& others, AIR 2000 SC 1421, the SC has rightly identified that the need for ‘Juristic persons’ arose due to human development and consequent necessities.

Sierra Club v. Morton, Sec. Int. 405 US 727 had a dissenting opinion that stated that voice of an inanimate object like a river or natural resource which symbolises multiple life forms are not to be silenced especially when serious injury is being inflicted by humans and their actions. Mr. Douglas who wrote this dissenting opinion referred to the situations when a ship or a corporate sole is given a legal personality whenever there is a need by laws.

Corpus Juris Secundum  and several other English Law literatures were read in depth to conceptualise terms like ‘Artificial Persons’, ‘Personality’, ‘Person’, ‘Nature of Personality’, ‘Natural Persons’, and differences between Natural and artificial persons etc.

THE FINAL JUDGMENT

On the basis of the above reasoning and by invoking the Court’s parenspartiae jurisdiction, the Sukhna Lake was declared as a legal person having artificial personality, considering the requirements of its protection, preservation and conservation. The citizens of the Union Territory are declared as loco parentis.

It was held that there was lack of observance of standards and procedures established by Punjab New Capital (Periphery) Control Act,  Capital of Punjab (Development and Regulation) Act, 1952. This was stated as the reason that led to unauthorized and illegal constructions over the protected areas where such activities were banned.

The Doctrine of Public Trust was the ground for the Court delivering its judgment in favour of protection of the Sukhna Lake from degradation. The judgment also pointed out that in spite of the Centre’s attempt to declare it a Wetland, neither Punjab nor Haryana has taken a step towards doing the same to conserve this ecologically sensitive area. The court came down heavily upon the weak administrative actions in drawing out development plans that included areas covered under Wetlands Protection. It criticises the poor actions of the Governments, which led to a large-scale violation of regulations and Court orders banning constructions in the site. There was no police support provided by the State Administrations to the Law Enforcement Agencies who were supposed to carry out the demolishing process of such illegal structures on the land, as directed by the Court. These demolitions are to be carried out within three months’ time, as per the Court’s final judgment.

The doctrine of ‘Polluter Pays’ principle was derived to hold both the State Governments liable in this case because irreparable damage has been made to the Lake due to the inaction from their part to protect the catchment area. Instead, permanent structures were allowed which permanently damaged the ecosystem of the Lake. Hence, the Court directed the States of Punjab and Haryana to pay special damages of Rupees One Hundred Crores to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which is supposed to be used for the purpose of the Lake’s restoration works that are to be completed rapidly within a year. In addition, the State Governments are directed to find rehabilitation areas for the house owners in the catchment area. For those who got their building map approved by the Government, an additional amount of Rupees 25 Lakhs may be provided by the Government. Each and every official who were responsible for the damage caused, will be identified individually by a High Power Committee constituted by the Chief Secretaries of the States and Advisor of UT Chandigarh for penalising them.

Directions are issued to the UT administration and State Governments to declare Sukhna Lake as Wetland under Wetland Rules of 2017. Regular dredging is suggested for preventing siltation and maintaining the existing water capacity and coverage. Several other directions with regard to removal of aquatic weeds, prevention of seepage of lake water and discharge of waste effluents to the lake are issued to the UT Administration. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change shall declare atleast 1 km from the borders of the Sanctuary as ‘Eco-sensitive Zone’. Use of land for the development plan is prohibited, as the plan itself is illegal.

Regarding the issue of stray dogs, Municipal Authorities were to address them more efficiently to avoid the persistent problem of dog bites and littering by pet dogs. Dog owners will be issued tokens by the authority when they register themselves and they shall also take care to remove and dispose the dog poop in a hygienic way. Housing of stray dogs were also to be taken care of. Building of dog pounds, breeding of dogs without registration, maintenance of proper space and protection from extreme weather, vaccination etc. are to be taken care of by the caretakers.

CONCLUSION

The concept of environmental personhood has been discussed by the Indian Judiciary earlier. However, this is a vast and all-inclusive judgment in this regard. The Bench has rightly made use of its parenspatriae jurisdiction to prevent the misuse of natural resources. This might be a promising venture to avert such unpardonable destruction by the citizens, supported by the authorities itself. Though it may seem impractical and absurd now, fixating such rights on elements of nature can be advantageous in a larger picture over a period of time. This can be observed from the cases of a few nations like Bolivia and New Zealand who were ahead of India in according a legal entity status and conferring associated rights to nature and its components. In a country that is fighting its way through climate change, pollution and environmental disasters due to man’s activities, this proactive approach is nothing buthighly appreciatedand exigent.

 

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