M.C. Mehta’s integrity has rubbed some people the wrong way, especially capitalists. Throughout his career as a lawyer, he has helped liberate children subjected to forced labor, negotiated for minimum-wage compliance for blue-collar workers and defended waters and historical sites. It’s safe to say that M.C. Mehta is a hero not only of the poor, but also of Mother Nature. This makes him an enemy of those who harm the environment for profit, who, sadly, are often among the most powerful and influential. This makes fighting for equality and justice even harder. It means having to build up a case for years before being ready to present all the evidence. If M.C. Mehta’s devotion was half-baked, it would be impossible to do what he has done so far.
He has received death threats, but never heeded his friends’ suggestion to get bodyguards. He answers his own phone and maintains a close-knit staff of devoted friends. He earns a pittance, but he does not mind; he’s more concerned about those who have little to no knowledge of their rights.
Some lawyers, not only in India, have earned reputations for pursuing only the biggest cases that will bring them more money and fame. M.C. Mehta goes after big cases without thinking about the money. The cases he handles are those no one wants because of the controversy and risk involved. Take the Ganges River case, for example: it took years for M.C. Mehta to build up the case against thousands of companies lining the sacred river. Then there was the Taj Mahal, his most popular case; he braved fighting numerous companies to prevent the national heritage from giving in to decay. It didn’t matter whether he was running in collision with powerful individuals like the Minister of Environment, who reclaimed part of the river to beautify his motel business. That did not go unnoticed by M.C. Mehta, and the court made him pay for polluting the waters.
What keeps M.C. going? What influenced him to be the fearless man that he is? Let’s honor the man who has been so selfless all these years and remains in the business of doing good and upholding justice.
Mahesh Chander Mehta was born on 12 October 1946 in the Jammu region. Their family was originally from Sohana, but decided to evacuate due to the border conflict and headed to Dhangri Village in the district of Rajauri. He loves where he grew up; it was peaceful and surrounded by nature, an ideal place to raise a child. It fostered an early love of nature in M.C., which he would later espouse as a grown man.
Because his father was literate, he was highly regarded in the village. He was made community leader and later became part of the village council. Their family belonged to the Brahman caste, meaning they are primarily priests, teachers, artists and inventors (technicians). M.C.’s father reared his children to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs. When M.C. was young, he even remembers reading the Qur’an, despite being Hindu.
His father also believed in the importance of education. The kids were schooled in a building made of mud, just like the rest of the houses in the community, but were schooled nonetheless.
Education and Career
When M.C.’s high school life began, he had to endure walking fourteen kilometers, including crossing two rivers, to and from the nearest school to his home. He found nothing interesting in school and, unbeknownst to his father, he started to skip classes. Instead of attending school, he just lingered in the river.
But his father soon found out, and M.C. was terrified. But, more than anger, the young M.C. felt sorry for his father, who was the one packing his school lunch every day and trusting that he was doing well in school. The desire to make his father proud set M.C. straight, and he started attending school diligently.
After high school, his parents wanted him to marry and start his own family, which he simply refused to do. He left home, assuring his parents that he would eventually marry, but first wanted to become a lawyer. Suffice it to say, he was one ambitious kid.
He set out to pursue a Bachelor of Laws in 1964, and supported himself by taking many random jobs, including being an accountant for a shoe store. Initially, he was clueless about accounting; he had to start from scratch, but managed to learn the ropes quickly. Some friends then suggested that he teach night classes. There was a school that was empty overnight, and some kids would study there at night when they didn’t have time in the morning. M.C gave it a shot and, apparently, had a flair for teaching; his handful of students soon grew until he had to let teachers join them.
M.C. was exposed early to concepts like activism. As his social circle grew, he became associated with Morarji Desai, who was then a member of J. P. Narayan’s “Janata Party,” a political party that opposed then-leader Indira Gandhi.
Fueled by idealism, M.C. started his own publication, “Presager,” in 1971. The paper revealed scams and other controversial conspiracies, which made it rather unpopular among advertisers who had their own interests to protect. This led to M.C.’s struggle to obtain funding until he decided to save on printing by buying his own printing press. He also began to accept outside contracts to keep the paper running, sometimes even financing the paper out of his own pocket to get the newest weekly edition published.
He also helped organize labor unions, at the behest of friends who had seen his leadership potential. Visiting factories exposed M.C. to the pitiful working conditions of minimum-wage earners. They worked long hours and were put in hazardous areas, such as near burning coals in blazing summer temperatures.
It was an eye-opener for M.C., who never thought people could be taken advantage of by capitalists to so great an extent. He began organizing unions until they became self-sufficient by 1975, the same year the “State of Emergency” was declared by Mrs. Gandhi.
In 1974, one year before finishing law school, he joined the Jayaprakash Narayan Movement. Three years later, the “Janata Party” was born as an offshoot of the movement. M.C. was elected General Secretary of the Jammu and Kasmir district and became National Secretary of the youth wing.
As soon as he finished law school, he set up his own law firm with three associates in Jammu. He was called to the Bar and successfully passed the interview. However, he continued to lean towards human rights movements.
The first to witness his legendary persistence and integrity was journalist Khushwant Singh. He wrote in an article that lawyers could not be trusted and that they were only after money. M.C. took offense and insisted on having Khushwant appear before the court. M.C. did not stop badgering him until he was called to appear and issue a public apology for what he wrote.
Despite having private practice, M.C. set aside four hours of his daily time, from 4PM - 8PM, to talk to people in search of legal advice. Just before the ‘80s began, he was approached by the leaders of the “Youth Action Committee,” who asked him to become the head of their organization. He graciously accepted, but made it clear that he was not a fan of violent demonstrations.
They began their demonstrations by sitting-in and carrying posters for everyone to see. The members soon grew restless, however, and disappeared one-by-one until M.C was left on his own. He did not seem to mind, and carried on in the name of antidiscrimination. When nothing happened after 60 days, he called on other practitioners of non-violent demonstrations to help him decide what to do next. They agreed to fast (go without food), which caught the attention of the media until someone had them confronted by police. This agitated the individuals, and M.C. seized the opportunity to highlight the way justice is served in Jammu.
His work managed to create solidarity among the community, and discourage even the authorities from doing things that go against human rights.
He also became friends with Madhu Mehta, founder of “Hindustani Andolan,” another organization which exposes political bias. This friendship gave M.C. much greater support in his lonesome battle. Things changed, though, after Mrs. Gandhi lost in the elections and Morarji Desai became Prime Minister of India. It was supposed to be good news, because he belonged to the Janata Party, but they too became so dazzled by money and fame that they forgot the ideologies and principles they used to espouse.
M.C. gave up his membership in JP, and also let go of Presager. He married Radha in 1983 and became a father to their only daughter, Tarini, in 1984. He also became a Supreme Court lawyer in that year.
As he became a father, his concern for children naturally escalated. He helped free 194 children in Orissa who had been forced to work for 12 hours per day in unhealthy environments for a matchstick company. He filed the case under Article 21 of India’s Constitution, which observes the rights of all citizens, and Article 32, which represents the right to life.
His interest in human rights would expand to include caring for the environment during Piloo Mody’s funeral in 1983, when a stranger approached him and told him that India’s historical site, the Taj Mahal, was dying due to acid rain. M.C. had never been there himself, so he went with his wife and Professor T. Shiva Ji Rao to find the building’s immaculate marble turning yellow. After thorough research and building his case to have enough evidence, the court finally agreed to hear it – six years later. Because of his persistence, the factories which did not comply with their waste regulations were closed down.
He also took care of the workers’ livelihood by instigating that those who could not afford to pay minimum wage had no right to do business. It was a win-win approach that endeared him to the masses.
Of course, there’s also the case against the Shriram Foods and Fertilizer Company, whose gas leak affected the health of the community until the fumes of which endangered the lives of over 40 students. The fight was long, and it took yet another blast for the Supreme Court to act on the issue, but the company was made to pay the damages.
Such were the achievements of M.C.’s uncompromising adherence to Strict and Absolute Liability, sometimes called the “Mehta Principle.” He also worked to help people become more responsible in throwing away their wastes. The Ganges River caught fire in 1985 due to accumulated chemicals in the water, all from factories which littered the entire Ganges stretch. But even after most of them closed down, the community still has not observed sanitation and the Ganges River is still the end destination of most of the area’s sewers. This time, M.C. used the Public Trust Doctrine to get his message across. Environmental programs were started by both schools and the media to comply with the court’s ruling.
In 1989, he joined the Indian Council on Enviro-Legal Action (ICELA), which enabled him to work with scientists and the justice system to implement sustainable waste management policies. This contributed greatly to the court’s successful mandate to make many gas companies start selling products with less emission.
He is currently the Director of the MC Mehta Environmental Foundation, his dream ashram for youth and lawyers. It is an avenue for them to instill the love of nature among the new generation. Today, M.C. Mehta is still the humble lawyer that he once was, but he has gained the respect not just of his people, but of the whole world.
Organizations and Programs Supported
- MC Mehta Environmental Foundation
- Jammu & Kashmir High Court
- Social and Political Causes
- ICELA (Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action)
- Green Marches
- Youth Action Committee
Awards and Achievements
- 1983: Became a Supreme Court lawyer
- 1984: Submitted a petition to save the Taj Mahal
- 1993: Received UN's “Global 500 Award,” “The Great Son of the Soil Award” and “The Rotary Manav Seva Award”
- 1996: Awarded the “Goldman Environmental Prize”
- 1997: Received the “Ramon Magsaysay Award for Asia for Public Service” and the “Vasundhara” by Rotary Club of Dombivali Midtown
- 1998: Received “People of the Year Award” from LIMCA Book of Record and the “Kerry Rydberg Award” for environmental activism
- Keynote Speaker at various International Conferences on Environmental Law and Human Rights held in the USA, Russia, UK, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Israel, Japan, Italy, Bhutan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Australia and Canada
- One of the founders of ICELA (Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action)
Wikipedia (Mahesh Chandra Mehta)
The Goldman Environmental Prize (M.C. Mehta)
MC Mehta Environmental Foundation (Awards)
MC Mehta Environmental Foundation
MC Mehta Environmental Foundation (Landmark Cases)
The Star (Battling for India's environment)
Know Climate Change (M C Mehta)
ELAW Spotlight (Justice for the Citizens of Bichhri)
Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (Mehta, Mahesh Chander: Citation)
Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (Mehta, Mahesh Chander: Biography)