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Environmental crusader M C Mehta wins Magsaysay Award

M C Mehta Mahesh Chandra Mehta, who fought for ten long years to protect the Taj Mahal from corrosive pollution, has won the 1997 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service.

The Award jury cited Mehta for "claiming for India's present and future citizens their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.''

Mehta rose to prominence for work resulting in 40 landmark Supreme Court decisions that shut down or relocated polluting factories in India's cities, forced polluters to pay, and compelled India's media to carry daily environmental messages.

In the most famous case, Mehta campaigned for 10 years to persuade the Supreme Court to ban coal-based industries emitting effluents that damage the soft marble of the Taj Mahal, India's architectural masterpiece.

The court also shut down 230 factories and required more than 300 others near the building to install pollution-control devices.

His case for the Taj began at a dinner party where talk was on of lawyers being unconcerned about environmental issues. The decaying of the Taj Mahal due to pollution was cited as an example. Mehta took up the challenge. For six months, he roamed the ecologically fragile Taj trapezium collecting facts about the polluting industries, and in early 1984, filed a public interest litigation that the polluting industries be shifted out of the trapezium.

Mehta campaigned for the introduction of lead-free gasoline in India's four largest cities, which has been done, and for 250 towns and cities near the Ganga to install sewage treatment plants. The Supreme Court ordered over 2,000 industries along the Ganga to clean up or close.

He also won a Supreme Court decision that forced a fertiliser factory to compensate thousands of people sickened by a 1985 gas leak.

At Mehta's urging, 30 polluting industries in West Bengal, including giants like Hindustan Lever, were indicted. The Supreme Court has also ordered environmental education mandatory in schools.

The 50-year-old Mehta is the 34th Indian to win the Magsaysay award since it was launched in 1958. Last year, he won the Goldman Award, worth US $75,000, the world's largest grassroots environmental prize.

EXTERNAL SITE: The Green Avenger

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