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NHRC takes note of Ganga pollution

VARANASI: Taking suo moto cognizance of a news report on the plight of the Ganga published in The Times of India, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on Wednesday issued notice to the Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests of the Government of India and the Uttar Pradesh Chief Secretary, calling for a report in the matter within four weeks. They will also report as to what steps have been taken to clean the Ganga and save it from any further pollution. The notice was issued by NHRC chairperson Justice KG Balakrishnan.

The NHRC team, headed by Justice Balakrishnan, was on a two-day visit to the city to hold open hearing of human rights violation cases on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"The Commission has come across a news report captioned 'Will the NHRC panel take suo moto cognizance of the pollution in Ganga', published in the 27.11.2013 edition of The Times of India. The report states about unabated polluting of the river Ganga in Varanasi and that such damage/pollution of the environment amounts to violation of human rights," the NHRC proceedings read.The notice further states that "the Commission believes that right to safe and clean environment is one of the most important human rights. Preserving the environment is not only important for the present generation, but also for the generations to come. The report, if true, raises a serious issue of violation of human rights"."Definitely it is a welcome and appreciable step taken by the NHRC," said the Magsaysay recipient and Waterman of India Rajendra Singh. "The NHRC should have taken this step earlier, but it is not too late even now," Singh told TOI over phone. The NHRC should also seek explanation from the 
National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) headed by the Prime Minister regarding the status of pollution abatement of the Ganga, said Waterman further adding that the NGRBA has failed in discharging its responsibility.

It is not the lone environmental issue that has been taken into cognizance by the NHRC. In October, the NHRC issued notice to the Kerala Government after taking suo moto cognizance of allegations of illegal sand mining in coastal areas. According to NHRC report, the Commission took suo moto cognizance of media reports that "a woman from Kerala, accompanied by her three small children, had moved to the National Capital to protest at the Jantar Mantar after an assurance from the state Chief Minister, subsequent to her 64-day sit in outside the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram for action against sand mining mafia, failed to yield any results".

Not only this, the NHRC has also come up with a dossier on "Environment and Human Rights". For the purpose of developing reference material on human rights education in Indian universities, the NHRC is publishing a set of nine books in the series. P 4

Each of these dossiers has been authored by activists and experts, who are deeply involved in or closely associated with the relevant movements. One such dossier is on Environment and Human Rights authored by Ashish Kothari and Anuprita Patel.

According to the dossier, to large numbers of humanity, especially communities that have been termed 'ecosystem people' (people depending on the natural environments of their own locality to meet most of their material needs), natural resources are the base of survival and livelihoods. Their material and economic sustenance largely depends on these. In India alone, around 70% of the population directly depends on land-based occupations, forests, wetlands and marine habitats, for basic subsistence requirements with regard to water, food, fuel, housing, fodder and medicine as also for ecological livelihoods and cultural sustenance. Given this close interdependence of humans and their environment, it is not surprising that the culture of societies is so greatly influenced by their environment. They seek inspiration, knowledge, spirituality and aesthetics within their natural surroundings.

Describing life, livelihoods, culture and society as fundamental aspects of human existence, the dossier maintained that their maintenance and enhancement is a fundamental human right. Destruction of environment and thereby of the natural resources, is therefore, a violation or leads to the violation of human rights -- directly by undermining these aspects of human existence, or indirectly by leading to other violations of human rights, for example through social disruption, conflicts and even war.

Conversely, human rights violations of other kinds can lead to environmental destruction, for instance, displacement by social strife/war can cause environmental damage in areas of relocation; or breakdown in sustainable common property management. The manifestations of such violations present themselves through a loss of access to clean air and water; loss of access to productive land; loss of energy sources and biomass; loss of food and health security; social and economic marginalization; and physical displacement.

The environmental conditions have deteriorated and worsened all over the country due to a variety of aggravating factors. The overall situation is certainly a matter of grave concern, more specially because it is affecting adversely the quality of life of the people and eroding the very foundations of the national economy and national security. The worst affected are the poorer sections of society. The situation is compounded by slack and inadequate enforcement of laws and legislations. In this scenario, the importance of strengthening the constitutional safeguards for environment protection and nature conservation cannot be underscored. There can be no doubt that it is only by ensuring ecological security that the goal of sustainable development and national well-being will become feasible, the dossier mentioned.

Regarding working environment, the dossier states that according to UN sources, nearly 180,000 workers die annually worldwide as a result of work-related accidents and occupational diseases. Another 110 million suffer non-fatal injuries. Occupational hazards include unhealthy working conditions as in the physical conditions at the work place, chemicals exposed to during work, noise and even psychological stresses related to the job. The gravest occupational diseases are caused by the inhalation of dust, or exposure to hazardous chemicals. Dust inhalation causes a series of lung diseases, their gravity depending on the type of dust, its fineness, concentration, period of exposure and the victim's health.

Regarding constitutional and legal provisions, the dossier says that the Constitution of India did not include any specific provision relating to environment protection or nature conservation. However, the past five decades have witnessed two major developments in this connection. The first development took place when the Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976, was adopted in the mid-seventies. Specific provisions relating to certain aspects of the environment, more specially for the protection of the forests and wildlife in the country, were incorporated in Part IV - Directive Principles of the State Policy - and List III - The Concurrent List - of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. As a result, the Constitution has now provisions specifically relating to environment protection and nature conservation. The second major development has been the jurisprudence arising from certain remarkable judicial pronouncements in recent years, more specially relating to Article 21 of the Constitution dealing with 'the right to life'.

The Times of India (28-11-2013)