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LEARNING TO CARE FOR THEIR WORLD

In 1991, the Supreme Court, in response to a writ petition by our most eminent environment lawyer, M.C. Mehta, directed every state in India to make environment education a compulsory subject in all schools and colleges, and demanded compliance to this directive of the apex body by the academic year, 1992-1993.

The petition in public interest of M.C. Mehta stated that the plea was being made “with a view to educating the people of India about their social obligation in the matter of upkeep of the environment in proper shape and making them alive to their obligation not to act as polluting agencies or factors”.

Our Constitution had undergone an amendment in 1976 with the incorporation of an article (51 A), headed Fundamental Duties, in which clause (g) “requires every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wild life and to have compassion for all living creatures.”

The court agreed with M.C. Mehta and stated that “no law can indeed effectively work unless there is an element of acceptance by the people in society”. In order that human conduct may be in accordance with the prescription of law, it is necessary that there should be appropriate awareness about what the law requires. It also reaffirmed that “keeping the citizens informed is an obligation of the government and it is equally the responsibility of the society to adequately educate every component of it so that the social level is kept up”. It was then up to the state governments to comply with the directives of the Supreme Court by 1992-93.

Just a small fine

In July 2003, the Supreme Court sent notices to ten states of India reprimanding them for not complying to this 1991 directive. The states that did not respond to the directive to were: Jammu and Kashmir with its awe-inspiring mountains and valleys of wild flowers; Assam and Arunachal Pradesh with its beautiful forests where some of India’s most endangered species and exquisite birds live; Goa and Maharashtra, India’s smallest and largest states, with fragile zones like the Western Ghats and its threatened flora and fauna; Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, with its rich forests and rivers; Rajasthan, known throughout the world for its unique desert wildlife and ecosystem; and West Bengal, where children need to know the fate of the Sundarbans, India’s only marshland sanctuary, the unique and wonderful home of the Bengal tiger. A special bench slapped a fine of Rs 15,000 each on all these ten states.

The fine appears to be ridiculously low for such a major offence. After all, it has been 10 years of neglect of hundreds of thousands of children who have passed out of school, not knowing about their environmental heritage and the role of citizens in saving the land they live in. Even one rupee per child that passed out of school in each of the ten states over the past 10 years amounts to crores, not a mere Rs 15,000.

Neglect costs

One asks, “What is the cost of intellectual damage, of neglect that results in ignorance, where one more generation does not know how to care or fulfil their constitutional fundamental duties as Indians'” How then do states neglect such Supreme Court directives and get away with so small a fine'

On the same principle we really need to make a similar petition regarding the compulsory teaching of India’s composite heritage so that every child in this country (who is privileged enough to have gone to school) knows the fundamental duties of every Indian (51A). Here too it is the responsibility of every state government to inform and teach our children how — clause (e) and (f) — “to promote harmony and the spirit of brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities and to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.”

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