Case Brief: Municipal Council Ratlam v. Vardhichand

Citation: AIR 1980 SC 1622

Court: Special Leave Petition (Crl) No. 2856 of 1979 before Hon’ble Supreme Court Of India

Hon’ble Judges/Coram: O. Chinnappa Reddy and V.R. Krishna Iyer, JJ

Theme: Obligation of statutory bodies in environment cases using the public nuisance doctrine in the CrPC

Subject: Environment law, Criminal Procedure code

Judgement: India


This case[1] pertains to tackling environmental issues and establishing obligation of statutory bodies using the public nuisance doctrine in the CrPC.

The year of 70s and 80s are important with regard to the emergence of the environment as an essential human right. The former decade saw a united international commitment and proactive Indian leadership under Mrs. Gandhi (then PM) in the realm of environment matters especially after the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in the year 1972, and in the later decade, the apex court of the country along with the high courts evolved a new jurisprudence pertaining to the environment. No doubt the judges indulged in judicial activism to some extent by going beyond the statutory reading in interpreting the policies of the government and obligations of the statutory bodies.

Many new provisions were introduced in the constitution like Article 48A (DPSP) and Article 51A(g) (Fundamental Duty). At the same time extended meaning was given from procedural justice to more substantive right to life incorporated in A.21 of the constitution via Maneka Gandhi case. This was good in a way as we do not have a fundamental Right to Environment in the constitution (for instance South Africa has such a right).


The facts in the current case[2] pertain to Ratlam city in Madhya Pradesh where the residents faced issues due to pungent smell emanating from open drains. One major cause was the overflow of remains from the distilleries from the drains which could create a health hazard for the public. Incidents of open defecation were also reported due to lack of toilets and presence of slums in the area.

In light of the given circumstances, the residents approached the executive magistrate to deal with the problem. Accordingly the magistrate passed an order directing the municipality to chart out a plan/programme to remove the drain and construct proper ones along with latrines to avoid open defecation within 6 months time.

However, the municipality displayed inability to comply with the order due to lack of funds and the matter came before this hon’ble court.


JC Galston v. Duniyalal Seal 1903 a Calcutta High Court decision[3], was the first case vis a vis environment degradation where the court held a factory in a thickly populated city of Calcutta as liable. The municipality could not try the local goon who created nuisance by discharging effluents. Court in absence of any statutory legislation observed that the mass population was affected and therefore it created public nuisance. The court ordered the factory to be shut down.

Ram Baj case[4], a doctor’s clinic was in the vicinity of a brick factory which caused dust to enter into his clinic. Also considering the fact that his clinic operated before the industry was started, he pleaded that he is entitled to special injury as a result of substantial damage. A special damage is different from that of a public nuisance (it is private in nature) and for it to qualify as public nuisance (Section 133. of CrPC) it must be proved that there is substantial injury to the public at large. In this case there was also a road close by where people were exposed to the dust emanating and therefore the factory was stopped via injunction. Court opined that nobody has the right to use his property in such a way as to materially affect the right to enjoyment of someone else’s property.


The issue before the court was whether the municipality’s financial inability to implement the programme exonerated it from statutory liability or not.


Justice Krishna Iyer identified the provisions in the IPC and CrPC relating to the law of public nuisance and interpreted them in the current case.

Firstly, as far as the statutory obligation goes, the municipality cannot shy away from its responsibility in violation of its rule book/legislation which puts a positive duty on it.

Secondly, the court considered the aspect of public nuisance in contravention of Section 133. of CrPC.

Section 133. to S.143 of CrPC are unique provisions which lay down procedural as well as substantive law. They are also called “summary remedies”. Section 133. lay down the powers of Magistrate/Sub Div. Magistrate along with the process where a “conditional order” can be given. For instance one can really compel a police officer to take action which can be passed on to the magistrate who issues show cause notice as to the reason asking the violator why the conditional order shouldn’t be passed. He needs to appear before the magistrate for the same. This order can be subsequently vacated (if compiled with) otherwise can be made permanent.

A public authority’s direction cannot be defied and if not followed is punishable u/s 188 of the IPC 1860. S.188 of the IPC, mandates the satisfaction of following ingredients to constitute a violation,

  1. A lawful order promulgated by an authority/public servant
  2. Knowledge of the order
  3. Disobedience of that order
  4. Result likely to follow due to disobedience of such order

For it to constitute an offence under this section, disobedience should have a consequence attached[5] like annoyance or obstruction. In this case, the consequence is closely related to public nuisance as non compliance of the magistrate’s order would lead to health and environmental issues. The municipality took the usual defence taken against this section which was that the order was wrong in the sense that they lacked funds. The court construed this right of the citizens as a “human right” and lack of funds is no excuse which can stand against such a right. Court in this regard said,

“Decency and dignity are non-negotiable facets of human rights and are a first charge on local self-governing bodies. Similarly, providing drainage systems-not pompous and attractive, but in working condition and sufficient to meet the needs of the people-cannot be evaded if the municipality is to justify its existence”

The court also opined that such self defence is disgraceful as the municipality has funds to fight the case but not alleviate the problems faced by the public. It says,

“Had the municipal council and its executive officers spent half this litigative zeal on cleaning up the street and constructing the drains by rousing the people’s sramdan resources and laying out the city’s limited financial resources, the people’s needs might have been largely met long ago.”

Court observed that order u/s 133 CrPC is obligatory and mandatory for the municipality to abide by and the plea of financial inability is totally unjustified in such cases where public nuisance is caused. This section also furthered the cause of Social justice and rule of law in lights of international developments and the position India took concerning the environment. Therefore the municipality was directed to come out with a plan and comply with the order of the magistrate.

Adding to the above discussion court also cited the Gobind Singh case[6] which involved the magistrate directing the owner of the bakery to demolish his oven and chimney as it caused inconvenience to the public at large under the relevant sections discussed above. The Supreme court however did not completely agree with the complete closure which would shut down the baker’s trade (asking baker to cease trade), but relied on the findings of the Sub Divisional magistrate in local inspection of the site. This was a change in position from the earlier precedents[7] in which the court questioned the “scientific evidence” or the findings of the magistrate. Therefore the court took positive aspect from the judgement in Gobind Singh case and quoted it,

“We are of the opinion that in a matter of this nature where what is involved is not merely the right of a private individual but the health, safety and convenience of the public at large, the safer course would be to accept the view of the learned Magistrate, who saw for himself the hazard resulting from the working of the bakery.”


One can always argue that given the genuinity of the plea raised by the municipality in this case[8], it becomes difficult to enforce the judgement passed and the order of the magistrate on ground. And in such a situation municipality is left with no option.

However in the year 1993, by way of 73rd and 74th amendment in the constitution, the local bodies were given powers to tackle the environmental issues. So this was an important development post Ratlam case which left no space for such an argument to arise in future at first place.

Every right has core and penumbra meaning (HLA Hart). The core part is specifiable whereas the penumbra part is flexible (a famous example can be the elastic nature of a rubber band). The judiciary interprets and plays with this elastic part and Environment can be today seen as a 3rd generation human right. Because every human right has few key features like,

  1. the applicability to everyone irrespective of geography or social backgrounds, etc (the universal aspect).
  2. the fundamental element involved in it which is that it should be enforceable with minimum resources and connected to specifiability
  3. The specifiability and non ambiguity making it clear

Considering all these factors, construing the environment as a part of human rights in this case by the court was indeed a visionary approach by Justice Krishna Iyer if one evaluates it based on these touchstones.

The Ratlam case[9] was reiterated in many future judgements by the courts. For instance in Krishna Gopal case[10], where a woman complained of noise pollution which caused vibrations and health threats especially to her husband who was a heart patient. Magistrate ordered a shut down of the factory which was confirmed later by the high court. Here, the court further explained Section 133. of CrPC. This case[11] has also been reiterated in future cases by the courts.


This case has endeavoured to envelope the grey areas in the environment jurisprudence with regard to legal mechanisms involved and the enforcement by the statutory bodies. Public nuisance as a tool to tackle this environment issue has emerged and Section 133. of the CrPC is widened. This insufficiency is also addressed in later legislations like the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and The Environment Protection Act,1986.

Accountability of both public as well as private bodies was established in the Ratlam case[12]. The former is duty bound to discharge its statutory mandated obligation whereas the latter is obligated to effectively discharge effluents and follow emission norms.

For more case briefs, click here.


[1] AIR 1980 SC1662

[2] ibid

[3] (1905)9 CWN 612, MANU/WB/0231/1905

[4] Ram Baj Singh v. Babulal, AIR 1982 All 285

[5] Lachhmi Devi, (1930) 58 Cal 971

[6] AIR 1979 SC 143

[7] AIR 1926 Pat 506 and AIR 1958 MP 350

[8] AIR 1980 SC1662

[9] AIR 1980 SC1662

[10] (1986)Cr LJ 396

[11] ibid

[12] AIR 1980 SC1662

Contributed By: Sparsh Sharma (Student, Rajiv Gandhi School of intellectual Property Law, IIT Kharagpur)

Law Library LawBhoomi

Leave a Reply

NALSAR Law Courses (1)