Once again, it has taken the Supreme Court. By slapping a hefty punitive fine on those who defaced with ads, logos and messages, glacial rocks going back millions of years along the Kullu-Manali Rohtang pass, and on the Himachal Pradesh government that blinked at this brazen vandalism, the apex court has reiterated that the court will step in when all other authorities retreat. The Rs 5 crore fine the SC has imposed on Monday underlines the promise that on issues that affect us all, the judiciary will fill the breach. But Monday’s order does more than reinforce an impression that has already been gaining ground. It also sends out messages that are altogether new: primarily, that environment is one of those crucial issues that the court will take up urgently. The order comes in record time, just over a month after the SC took suo motu notice of the report ‘Rape of the Rock’ and pictures in The Sunday Express which first bared the extent of the damage to public view.
This is truly a moment to savour for all those who have long argued that environment concerns everyone and that environmental degradation must concern everyone too. Monday’s order delivers a stinging lesson that corporates like Coke and Pepsi are unlikely to forget in a hurry. The exemplary fine will send shock waves across the country to all those big business houses that think they can destroy nature and get away with it. The polluter pays, affirmed the court, and pays heavily. This is also the time to revive those larger questions that have fallen off our cognitive maps: why is it that despite the fact that India was one of the first off the block to enunciate the environmental principle in its policies, with the Fourth Plan setting down that ‘harmonious development recognises the unity of nature and man’, environment has never really been admitted into the league of the Big Issues? Why is it that political parties and governments and all those with the power to influence public debate have always treated ecological concerns with barely concealed indifference? In this country, why has environment never been a priority on the political agenda?
It is wonderful news that the court is not done with the issue yet — it has directed the ministry of environment and forests to file an affidavit on the basis of information gathered from all states as to whether ‘such commercial vandalism’ was prevalent in states other than Himachal Pradesh as well. But a note of caution is in order here. Welcome as it is, judicial activism can only highlight the problem. Finally, we must all, government and the people, address it.