Dr. Ashok v. Union of India and others

AIR 1997 SC 2298
Download Judgment: English
Country: India
Region: Asia
Year: 1997
Court: Supreme Court
Health Topics: Diet and nutrition, Environmental health
Human Rights: Right to a clean environment, Right to health, Right to life
Tags: Biohazard, Contamination, Food safety, Pesticide, Pollution

Amongst the several chemicals used industrially, some insecticides, colour additives and food additives (the chemicals) were approved for use in India even though they were banned in “advanced countries” as they carried carcinogenic properties.

These facts were mentioned in a letter sent by Dr. Ashok (the Petitioner) to the Chief Justice of India. The Court “treated the letter as a petition under Article 32 of the Constitution and took up the matter as a public interest litigation.” Article 32 guarantees the right to move the Supreme Court for the enforcement of fundamental rights. Along with the letter, the Court clubbed another petition challenging a notification by the Central Government which called for progressively phasing out the manufacture and use of Benzene Hexachloride (BHC) by cancelling certificate of registration from a future date.

In this matter, the Central Government had set up an expert committee to review the use of those pesticides which were either “banned or restricted for use in other countries.”

The Court’s analysis centred on the interpretation of the Insecticide Act, 1968 and the application of Article 21 of the Constitution which establishes the right to life and liberty and from which the Court derived the right to health.

On the relation between use of the chemicals and health, the Court noted that even though these chemicals could be used to fight epidemics like plague and dengue, this could not be used as an excuse for allowing their manufacture when their use is “grossly detrimental to the human health.” The Court went on to hold that excessive use of such hazardous products was a danger to the health and safety of living beings especially agricultural workers.

Stressing on the importance of public health within the framework of Article 21, the Court relied on M.C. Mehta v. Union of India & others ((1987) 4 SCC 463), where it held that “life, public health and ecology have priority over problems of unemployment and loss of revenue.”

Regarding the need for an intervention by the administrative machinery of the State, the Court noted that there was no coordination between the different ministries involved. It, therefore, directed that within two months from the order, a committee of four senior officers from the four different ministries involved be set up. The purpose of the committee would be to deliberate upon and take “suitable measures” in respect of insecticides and chemicals which is found to be hazardous to health. The Court did not issue directions with regard to the chemicals mentioned in the petition.

As to the question of BHC and certificates of registration, the Court held that the order of the Central Government cancelling certificates of registration for the formulation of BHC 10% was within its jurisdiction and did not suffer with any legal infirmity. It, however, held that the Central Government had no power to cancel certificates of registration issued in respect of BHC which “is one of the substances specified in the schedule and as such is an insecticide.”

The Court further held that the Central Government had no power to cancel certificates of registration with respect to substances specified in the Schedule even if there was scientific evidence that the use of such a substance was grossly detrimental to human health. It held this to be a “lacuna in the legislation” and therefore “steps should be taken for appropriate amendment to the legislation.”

“The excessive use of chemicals and pesticides for optimising agricultural production created alarming danger to health and safety of living beings in general and agriculture workers in particular.” Page 6.

“Right to Life enshrined in Article 21 means right to have something more than survival and not mere existence or animal existence. It includes all those aspects of life which go to make a man's life meaningful, complete and worth living.” Page 6.

“By giving an extended meaning to expression 'life' in Article 21 this court has brought health hazards due to pollution within it and so also the health hazards from use of harmful drugs.” Page 8.