Environmental Law & The Indian Constitution



The protection and preservation of environment is integral to the culture and religion of most human communities; nature is seen as an essential part of the society at large. Good environment is also essential to ensure basic human rights, even the right to life, for no human right can be secured in a degraded environment. An example will highlight the importance of a green and healthy environment. Misuse of our natural resources, a key environmental issue, has direct impact on fundamental human rights such as right to food, right to water, right to air and right to life itself. It is important to draw linkages between environment and human rights to further build bridges between legislation relating to the two.
The relationship between man and his environment is undergoing profound changes in the wake of modern scientific and technological developments. In India, from time to time various laws have been enacted for the protection of the environment, flora, and fauna, and the Indian Constitution is the first Constitution in the world which contains specific provisions for the protection and improvement of the environment. In India, in view of the various constitutional provisions and other statutory provisions contained in various laws relating to environmental protection, the Supreme Court has held that the essential feature of “sustainable development” such as the “Precautionary Principle” and the “Polluter Pays Principle” are part of Environmental law of the Country.

The Forty- Second Amendment Act: Environmental protection and improvement were explicitly incorporated into the Constitution by the Constitution (Forty- Second Amendment) Act of 1976. Article 48A was added to the Directive Principles of State Policy. It declares: ‘The State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forest and wildlife of the country.’ Article 51A (g) in a new chapter entitled ‘Fundamental Duties’, imposes a similar responsibility on every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures. Together, the provisions highlight the national consensus on the importance of environmental protection and improvement and lay the foundation for a jurisprudence of environmental protection.

Duty of the State

Part IV of the Constitution of India contains the Directive Principles of State Policy. These directives are the active obligations of the State; they are policy prescriptions for the guidance of the Government.

Article 37 of Part IV of the Constitution limits the application of the directive principles by declaring that these principles shall not be enforceable by any Court. Therefore, if a directive is not followed by the State, its implementation cannot be secured through judicial proceedings. On the other hand, these principles are fundamental in the governance of the country and it is the duty of the State to apply these principles during the process of law-making.

  • Part IV – Directive Principles of State Policy
    • Article 48A. Protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forests and wildlife.
    • The State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.

The parliament had a considerable debate over the wording of the draft Article 48-A. Several amendments were moved in both the houses of the Parliament. Seervai has correctly pointed out:

Article 48-A reflects an increasing awareness of people all over the world of the need to preserve the environment from pollution, especially in urban areas. Smoke, industrial waste, deleterious exhaust fumes from motor cars and other combustion engines are injurious to the health and well-being of the people and foul the atmosphere. The preservation of forests and their renewal by afforestation has long been recognized in India as of great importance both with reference to rainfall and to prevent erosion of the soil by depriving it of forests that protect it. The preservation of wildlife is looked upon as necessary for the preservation of ecological balance. Article 48-A rightly emphasis the fact that the State should try not only to protect but to improve the environment.

Article 39(e), 47, and 48-A of the Directive Principles of State Policy have a definite bearing on environmental problems. They, by themselves and collectively impose a duty on the State to secure the health of the people, improve public health and protect and improve the environment.

Environmental pollution may damage the monuments of national importance, the protection of which is a duty of the State under Article 49 of the Constitution. Article 49 of the Directive Principles of State Policy provides for the obligation of the State to protect monuments, places and objects of national importance.

In the Taj case, the Supreme Court of India seems to have got inspiration from Article 49 while protecting the Taj Mahal, a monument protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, from harmful Industrial emissions originating in and around Agra.
Article 51(c) directs the State to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another.

Therefore, in view of the range of international treaties law and treaty obligations in Article 51 (c), read to conjunction with the specific treaty provision, may also serve to strengthen the hands of pro-conservation judge.

Part IV
(Directive Principles of State Policy)

37.Application of the principles contained in this Part—The provisions contained in this Part shall not be enforceable by any court, but the principles therein laid down are nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws.

39.Certain principles of policy to be followed by the State—The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing—

a) that the citizens, men, and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood;
b) that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good;
c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment;
d) that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women;
e) that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength;
f) that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment.

48A. Protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forests and wild life —The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country.

49.Protection of monuments and places and objects of national importance—It shall be the obligation of the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest, declared by or under law made by Parliament to be of national importance, from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export, as the case may be.

51.Promotion of international peace and security—The State shall endeavor to—

a) promote international peace and security;
b) maintain just and honorable relations between nations;
c) foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another; and
d) encourage settlement of international disputes by arbitration.

Fundamental Duties of the Citizens

The Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976 inserted part IV-A into the Constitution of India. This new part prescribes certain fundamental duties for the citizens of India. The sole Article of this part, Article 51-A, specifies ten fundamental duties.

Part IVA – Fundamental Duties
Article 51A. Fundamental duties
It shall be the duty of every citizen of India …
(g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures;

Then Indian Constitution has imposed a joint responsibility upon the State, and every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment. In the words of Ranganath Mishra, J.:

“Preservation of the environment and keeping the ecological balance unaffected is a task which not only Government but also very citizen must undertake. It is a social obligation and let it remind every citizen that it is his fundamental duty as enshrined in Article 51-A (g) of the Constitution”

After making reference to Article 48-A and Article 51-A (g), the High Court of Himachal Pradesh concluded –

Thus there is both a Constitutional pointer to the State and a Constitutional duty of the citizens not only to protect but also to improve the environment and to preserve and safeguard the forests, the flora and fauna, the rivers and lakes and all the other water resources of the country. The neglect or failure to abide by the pointer or to perform the duty is nothing short of a betrayal of the fundamental law which the State and, indeed, every Indian high or low, is bound to uphold and maintain.

The Courts have reminded time and again to both State as well as citizens about their duties towards environment while deciding environmental issues by referring to Article 48-A and 51- A(g) of the Constitution.

Part IV-A

Fundamental Duties

51A. Fundamental duties—It shall be the duty of every citizen of India—

a) to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem;
b) to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom;
c) to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity, and integrity of India;
d) to defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so;
e) to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic, and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women;
f) to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture;
g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures;
h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform;
i) to safeguard public property and to abjure violence;
j) to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavor and achievement.

Fundamental Rights

  • Right to Wholesome Environment

Part III of the Constitution of India contains fundamental rights. These rights were included in the Constitution after long debates in the Constituent assembly.

Part III – Fundamental Rights
Article 21. Protection of life and personal liberty
No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.
Article 32. Remedies for enforcement of rights conferred by this Part

(1) the right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Part is guaranteed.
(2) The Supreme Court shall have the power to issue directions or orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari, whichever may be appropriate, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by this Part.

It was the Menka Gandhi case that heralded the new era of judicial thought. The court started recognizing several unarticulated liberties that were implied by Article 21 and during this process, the Supreme Court interpreted, after some hesitation the right to life and personal liberty to include the right to a wholesome environment. The conflict between development needs and environmental protection has been the most controversial issue before the courts in deciding environmental matters.

Incidentally, the Dehradun Quarries case that paved the way for the right to a wholesome environment has also focused on this continuing conflict. The judgments in Dehradun quarries cases were passed under Article 32 of the Constitution and involved the closure of some of the quarries on the ground that their operation was upsetting the ecological balance of the area. The indirect approval of the right to a humane and healthy environment by the Supreme Court continued further in the Oleum gas leak case.

Life cannot be possible without clean drinking water therefore; right to clean water is one of the attributes of the right to life in Article 21 of the Constitution6 . The industrial establishments in and around residential colonies are another cause of concern, more so, when the industries have mushroomed contrary to the development plans.

In V. Lakshmipathy v. State of Karnataka the same issue came before the High Court of Karnataka. The High Court held that once a development plan had earmarked the area for residential purposes, the land was bound to be put to such use only. Thus, High Courts, it seems, were more enthusiastic and active in accepting and declaring that ‘right to life’ in Article 21 includes ‘right to the environment’.

  • Right to livelihood vis-à-vis Environment

The Supreme Court has recognized another aspect of the right to life enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution, viz. the right to livelihood. There is a real chance of clash of these rights, i.e. right to environment and right to livelihood as the government’s action to close down industrial units for protection of the environment may result in loss of a job, dislocation of poor workers and might disrupt badly the lifestyles of people heavily dependent on such industries.

The right to livelihood has been recognized by the Supreme Court in the case of Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation. The Court issued directions to the Municipal Corporation to provide alternative sites or accommodation to the slum and pavement dwellers near to their original sites, and to provide amenities to slum-dwellers.
In many cases, the Supreme Court passed orders requiring State agencies and concerned person to resettle and rehabilitate the workers or other persons who were being displaced by the decision of the Court or of the Government displaced by the Decision of the Court or of the Government to close down an industry or to relocate at a suitable place.

  • Right to Equality

Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees to every person the right – not to be denied equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws. The possibility of infringement of this Article by a government decision having an impact on the environment cannot be ruled out. Article 14 strikes at arbitrariness because an action that is arbitrary must necessarily involve a negation of equality.
Thus, permission for contractions that are contrary to town planning regulation by the municipal authority may be challenged. Similarly, Article 14 may be invoked to challenge governmental sanction of projects having an adverse impact on the natural environment and where such sanctions involve arbitrary considerations.

  • Freedom of Trade

Article 19(1) (g) of the Constitution guarantees to all citizens of India, the right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation or trade or business. The freedom, however, is not uncontrolled. The aggrieved industrialist may resort to Article 19 in case his trade and business interests are affected by the action of governmental agencies in the name of environmental protection.

As environmental regulation grows more stringent and its enforcement becomes more vigorous, an industrial challenge to agency action is likely to increase. Courts will then need to balance environmental interests with the fundamental right it carries on any occupation, trade the fundamental right to carry in any occupation, trade, or business guaranteed in Article 19(1) (g). Various standards have been prescribed by the Government for the discharge of different pollutants. An industry may challenge a very stringent standard that cannot be complied with, despite best efforts by available technology or if it is otherwise unreasonable.

  • Role of Panchayat and Municipalities (Article 243-B, 243-G)

The Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act, 1992 and the Constitution (Seventy-fourth Amendment) Act, 1992 have given a Constitutional status to the panchayats and the Municipalities respectively. Article 243-B provides or the establishment of intermediate and district levels. Article 243-G authorizes the legislature of State to endow the Panchayats with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as an institution of self-government.

The Eleventh Schedule along with other matters contains the following matters which are directly or indirectly related to the environment like, agriculture, soil conservation, water management and watershed development; fisheries; social forestry and farm forestry; minor forest produce; drinking water; health and sanitation; and maintenance of community assets.

The matters which are related to the environment in the twelfth Schedule may be enumerated as follows –
Urban planning including town planning regulation of land use water supply; public health, sanitation, conservancy, and solid waste management, urban forestry, protection of the environment and promotion of ecological aspects; provision of urban amenities such as park grounds; cremation grounds, and electric crematoriums; prevention of cruelty to animals regulation slaughterhouses and tanneries.
Thus it is evident that the Constitution imposes the duty to protect and preserve the environment in all the three tiers of the Government i.e. Central, State, and local.

  • Public Interest Litigation (Article 32 and 226)

One of the most innovative parts of the Constitution is that the Writ Jurisdiction is conferred on the Supreme Court under Article 32 and on all the High Courts under Article 226. Under these provisions, the courts have the power to issue any direction or orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari, whichever is appropriate.
This has paved way for one of the most effective and dynamic mechanisms for the protection of the environment, that is, Public Interest Litigations.
The powers of the Supreme Court to issue directions under Article 32 and that of high courts to issue directions under Article 226 have attained great significance in environmental litigation. The Public Interest Litigation has proved itself as an important tool in the hands of environmentalists and the judiciary for the protection of the environment from pollution and degradation. In certain cases, it has paved the ways for the improvement of the existing natural environment. The importance of PIL can easily be understood by the leading cases in the area of the environment.

In M.C. Mehta v. Union of India10 (Oleum Gas Leak case) on a public interest petition by a lawyer of the Supreme Court, the Court grabbed the opportunity to deliberate upon certain very sensitive issues like scope of Article 32 and principles of liability, etc. the court held that the power of the Court under Article 32 to grant remedial relief may include the power to award compensation in appropriate cases.

In M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Kanpur Tanneries case), public interest litigation was filed by an active social worker and Supreme Court advocate for restraining tanneries near Kanpur, from polluting the river Ganga by discharging trade effluents into it. As a result, to rouse amongst the people the consciousness of cleanliness of the environment the Government of India and the Government of the States and of the Union Territories were advised by the Court to consider the desirability of organizing various educational activities to raise awareness.
It is therefore evident that PIL has played an important role in the protection of the natural environment. It has been proved to be the most potent weapon in the hands of the environmentalists who want to protect and save the environment. The judiciary has also used PIL as a tool for the protection of the natural environment and has evolved various principles and doctrines in the field of environmental jurisprudence in order to save the environment.

1) Part III : Fundamental Rights
Right to Equality

14.Equality before law—The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.

Right to Freedom

19.Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech, etc.—(1) All citizens shall have the right—

a) to freedom of speech and expression;
b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;
c) to form associations or unions;
d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;
e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and
f) has been repealed
g) to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.

21.Protection of life and personal liberty—No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.

Right to Constitutional Remedies

32.Remedies for enforcement of rights conferred by this Part—

1) The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Part is guaranteed.
2) The Supreme Court shall have the power to issue directions or orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari, whichever may be appropriate, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by this Part.
3) Without prejudice to the powers conferred on the Supreme Court by clauses (1) and (2), Parliament may by law empower any other court to exercise within the local limits of its jurisdiction all or any of the powers exercisable by the Supreme Court under Clause (2).
4) The right guaranteed by this article shall not be suspended except as otherwise provided for by this Constitution.

2) Part IX : Article 243B and 243G

243B. Constitution of Panchayats

1) There shall be constituted in every State, Panchayats at the village, intermediate, and district levels in accordance with the provisions of this Part.
2) Notwithstanding anything in clause (1), Panchayats at the intermediate level may not be constituted in a State having a population not exceeding twenty lakhs.

243G. Powers, authority and responsibilities of Panchayats—Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Legislature of a State may, by law, endow the Panchayats with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government and such law may contain provisions for the devolution of powers and responsibilities upon Panchayats at the appropriate level, subject to such conditions as may be specified therein, with respect to—

a) the preparation of plans for economic development and social justice;
b) the implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice as may be entrusted to them including those in relation to the matters listed in the Eleventh Schedule.

3) Part VI: Article 226

The States
Chapter V.—The High Courts in the States

226.Power of High Courts to issue certain writs—

  1. Notwithstanding anything in Article 32 every High Court shall have power, throughout the territories in relation to which it exercises jurisdiction, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, within those territories directions, orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari, or any of them, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose.
  2. The power conferred by clause (1) to issue directions, orders or writs to any Government, authority, or person may also be exercised by any High Court exercising jurisdiction in relation to the territories within which the cause of action, wholly or in part, arises for the exercise of such power, notwithstanding that the seat of such Government or authority or the residence of such person is not within those territories.
  3. Where any party against whom an interim order, whether by way of injunction or stay or in any other manner, is made on, or in any proceedings relating to, a petition under clause (1), without—
    • furnishing to such party copies of such petition and all documents in support of the plea for such interim order; and
    • giving such Party an opportunity of being heard, makes an application to the High Court for the vacation of such order and furnishes a copy of such application to the Party in whose favor such order has been made or the counsel of such Party, the High Court shall dispose of the application within a period of two weeks from the date on which it is received or from the date on which the copy of such application is so furnished, whichever is later, or where the High Court is closed on the last day of that period, before the expiry of the next day afterward on which the High Court is open; and if the application is not so disposed of, the interim order shall, on the expiry of that period, or, as the case may be, the expiry of the said next day, stand vacated.
  4. The power conferred on a High Court by this article shall not be in derogation of the power conferred on the Supreme Court by clause (2) of Article 32.

Role of Judiciary & Good Governance

The concept of governance is as old as human civilization. Good governance signifies the way an administration improves the standard of living of the members of its society by creating and making available the basic amenities of life; providing its people security and the opportunity to better their lot; instill hope in their heart for a promising future; providing, on an equal and equitable basis, access to opportunities for personal growth; affording participation and capacity to influence, in the decision-making in public affairs; sustaining a responsive judicial system which dispenses justice on merits in a fair, unbiased and meaningful manner; and maintaining accountability and honesty in each wing or functionary of the Government. The “participation” in order to be effective, needs to be informed and organized and, therefore, depends upon the availability to the subjects “freedom of association and expression” on one hand and the existence of “an organized civil society” on the other. This necessarily is a pointer to “representative democracy”.

The attribute of “rule of law” in hers as a prerequisite “fair legal frameworks” that are enforced impartially and particularly “full protection of human rights”, especially of the vulnerable sections of the society. The factor of “transparency” requires that information is freely available and the decisions are taken or enforced in a manner that adheres to the rules and regulations. The attribute of “responsiveness” necessitates that all public institutions and their processes strive “to serve all stakeholders within a reasonable time frame”.

Democracy, liberty, and the rule of law together represent the troika that is universally accepted now as the index of civil society. Democracy signifies a government of, by, and for the people. The protection of individual liberties follows the notion of democracy as a natural corollary. This entails the espousal of a methodical configuration of laws by which society might be regulated and different conflicting interests can be harmonized to the fullest extent. This is why “the rule of law” is indispensable. It envisages the pre-eminence of law as opposed to anarchy or capricious dictates. It involves equal accountability of all before the law irrespective of high or low status.

Democracy has been evolved through centuries of experience amongst the people, who care for human person, dignity, and rights as the best and most acceptable form of good governance. It is a concept that occasions the idea that all citizens have a right to participate in the decision-making processes that lead to the adoption of policies that are applicable to the societies. It also means that there are some limits on majority decision-making and, hence the inevitability of certain basic rights being protected.

It rests on maintaining a necessary equilibrium between the numerous competing interests, demands, constraints, and compulsions that exist in any civic society eager for development. India was founded as a democratic welfare State which would allow equal opportunity to one and all, irrespective of caste, creed, colour, sex, or any other form of discrimination; a State where everyone would have equal opportunity for personal growth and for contributing to the cause of the nation. Democracy has been defined as “a Government by the people, of the people and for the people”.

The Directive Principles have been used as fundamental principles of governance tempered by the Fundamental Rights. From time to time, adjustments have been made in the Fundamental Rights — through legislative measures, executive action, or judicial pronouncements — so as to further the object sought to be achieved by the Directive Principles. After all, the purpose of the Fundamental Rights on the one hand and the Directive Principles on the other is common; viz., to provide for an environment that can ensure dignified growth and development of each individual as a useful human being. In order to guarantee that the role of law would inure to, and for, everyone and the promises made by the Constitution would not remain merely on paper, the Constitution makers made provisions for independence of the judiciary.

Judiciary in India enjoys a very significant position since it has been made the guardian and custodian of the Constitution. It not only is a watchdog against violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution and thus insulates all persons, Indians, and aliens alike, against discrimination, abuse of State power, arbitrariness, etc.

Liberty and Equality have well survived and thrived in India due to the pro-active role played by the Indian judiciary. The rule of law, one of the most significant characteristics of good governance prevails because India has an independent judiciary that has been sustained, amongst others, because of support and assistance from an independent bar that has been fearless in advocating the cause of the underprivileged, the cause of deprived, the cause of such sections of society as are ignorant or unable to secure their rights owing to various handicaps, an enlightened public opinion, and vibrant media that keeps all the agencies of the State on their respective toes. One of the most important principles of just democratic governance is the presence of constitutional limits on the extent of government power.

Such limits include periodic elections, guarantees of civil rights, and an independent judiciary, which allows citizens to seek the protection of their rights and redress against government actions. These limits help make branches of government accountable to each other and to the people. An independent judiciary is important for preserving the rule of law and is, therefore, the most important facet of good governance. The judicial system has an important role to play ultimately in ensuring better public governance. There may be a plethora of regulations, rules, and procedures but when disputes arise, they have to be settled in a court of law.

There is no area where the judgments of the Supreme Court have not played a significant contribution in the governance – good governance – whether it be – environment, human rights, gender justice, education, minorities, police reforms, elections, and limits on constituent powers of Parliament to amend the Constitution. This is only illustrative. Indian Judiciary has been pro-active and has scrupulously and overzealously guarded the rights fundamental for human existence.

The scope of the right to life has been enlarged so as to read within its compass the right to live with dignity, right to a healthy environment, right to humane conditions of work, right to education, right to shelter and social security, right to know, right to adequate nutrition and clothing and so on. This has been achieved by filling the vacuum in municipal law by applying, wherever necessary, International instruments governing human rights. The Supreme Court has, over the years, elaborated the scope of fundamental rights consistently, strenuously opposing intrusions into them by agents of the State, thereby upholding the rights and dignity of individuals, in the true spirit of good governance.

In case after case, the Court has issued a range of commands for law enforcement, dealing with an array of aspects of executive action in general, and of police at the cutting edge level in particular. A democratic form of Government of the kind adopted by India depends on its success of a system of free and fair elections regulated, monitored, and controlled by an independent agency.

  • Declaration of Right by Supreme Court

a) Chetriya Pardushan Mukti Sangarsh Samiti v. State of UP (AIR 1990 SC 2060)
“Every citizen has a fundamental right to have the enjoyment of quality of life and living as contemplated by Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Anything, which endangers or impairs that quality of life, is entitled to take recourse to Article 32 of the Constitution of India.”
b) Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar (AIR 1991 SC 420)
“the right to life enshrined in Article 21 includes the right to the enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for the full enjoyment of life. If anything endangers or impairs the quality of life, and affected person or a person genuinely interested in the protection of society would have recourse to Article 32.”
c) Virendra Gaur v. State of Haryana (1995 2 SCC 577)
Article 21 protects the right to life as a fundamental right. Enjoyment of life and its attainment including their right to life with human dignity encompasses within its ambit, the protection and preservation of the environment, ecological balance free from pollution of air and water, sanitation without which life cannot be enjoyed. Any contra acts would cause environmental pollution. Environmental, ecological, air, water pollution, etc., should be regarded as amounting to a violation of Article 21.”

d) B.L. Wadehra v. Union of India {(1996) 2 SCC 594}.
e) Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India {AIR 1996 SC 2715}
f) AP Pollution Control Board v. M.V. Nayudu {(1999) 2 SCC 718}
“Environmental concerns arising in the SC under Article 32 or under Article 136 or under Article 226 in the High Courts are of equal importance as human right concerns. In fact, both are to be traced to Article 21 which deals with the Fundamental Right to life and liberty.” It was further observed “while environmental aspects concern ‘life”, human rights aspects concern ‘liberty’.”

  • Case Studies – Declaration of Right by High Courts

a) Damodhar Rao v. Municipal Corporation, Hyderabad (AIR 1987 AP 170)

“there can be no reason why practice of violent extinguishments of life alone would be regarded as violative of Article 21 of Constitution. The slow poisoning by the polluted atmosphere caused by environmental pollution and spoilation should also be regarded as amounting to violation of Article 21 of the Constitution.”

b) L.K.Koolwal v. State of Rajasthan (AIR 1988 Raj 2)

“Maintenance of health, sanitation and environment falls within Article 21 thus rendering the citizens the fundamental right to ask for affirmative action.”

c) Attakoya Thangal v. Union of India ( 1990 KLT 580)

“The right to sweet water, and the right to free air are attributes of the right to life, for these are the basic elements which sustain life itself.”

d) V. Lakshmipathy v. State of Karnataka (AIR 1992 Kant 57)

“Entitlement to clean environment is one of the recognized basic human rights…..The right to life inherent in Article 21 of the Constitution of India does not fall short of the required quality of life which is possible only in an environment of quality.”
“Where on account of human agencies, the quality of air and quality of the environment are threatened or affected, the Court would not hesitate to use its innovative power…to enforce and safeguard the right to life to promote public interest”.

Sustainable Development

While many factors play an important role in development, good governance is now recognized as playing an essential role in the advancement of sustainable development. Good governance promotes accountability, transparency, efficiency, and rule of law in public institutions at all levels. In addition, it allows for sound and efficient management of human, natural, economic, and financial resources for equitable and sustainable development. Moreover, under good governance, there are clear decision-making procedures at the level of public authorities, civil society participation in decision-making processes, and the ability to enforce rights and obligations through legal mechanisms.

These aspects of good governance do not in themselves ensure that society is run well nor do they guarantee sustainable development. However, their absence severely limits that possibility and can, at worst, impede it. Without proper functioning institutions of governance based on the rule of law that promotes social stability and legal certainty, there cannot be investment and assumption of risk that form the basis of market economy development, let alone sustainable development.

Indeed, the strength of the rule of law is the best predictor of a country’s economic success.

Furthermore, deficiency in the rule of law encourages high rates of corruption, with further devastating consequences on the confidence of economic actors. This lack of investment, in turn, slows economic growth and consequently deprives the governments of resources to invest in education, social safety nets, and sound environmental management, all of which are critical for sustainable development. The introduction of good governance and rule of law, however, cannot be done overnight. The process is often a gradual one, involving changes to long-standing practices, entrenched interests, cultural habits, and social and even religious norms. A significant step was taken in this endeavor in 1998 when countries adopted the Convention on Access to Information.

Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. The Convention recognises that sustainable development can only be achieved through the involvement of all stakeholders and seeks to promote greater transparency and accountability among government bodies by guarantying three pillars for the public:

  1. The rights of citizen access to information.
  2. Citizen participation in decision making.
  3. Citizen access to justice in environmental matters.

In other words, the Convention guarantees freedom of access to information on the environment, gives citizens a right to participate in environmental decision-making, and provides for recourse to judicial and administrative remedies when these rights are denied by State authorities.

Let us now examine a few international documents which confer sustainable development and environmental rights similar to that provided in the Indian Constitution:

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966:
    • Article 6: Every human being has the inherent right to life.
    • Article 11: Right to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.
    • Article 12(1): Right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
    • Article 12(2): Steps shall be taken by States for the improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene.
  • United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) Stockholm, 1972:
    • Principle 1: Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality, and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.
  • The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Rio 1992:
    • Human beings are at the center of our concern for Sustainable Development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.
  • Proposed by UN Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities —Study on “Human Rights and the Environment”:
    • Principle 1: Human Rights and ecologically sound environment, Sustainable development, and peace are inter-dependent and indivisible.
    • Principle 2: All persons have the right to a secure, healthy, and ecologically sound environment. This right and other human rights including civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, are universal, interdependent, and indivisible.
  • Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and Environment:
    • Principle 5: All persons have the right to freedom from pollution, environmental degradation, and activities that adversely affect the environment, threaten life, health, livelihood, well-being, or sustainable development within, across, or outside national boundaries.
  • Right to Environment — A Constitutional Right in different Countries:
    • Greek Constitution, 1975: Article 24: “The protection of the natural and cultural environment constitutes a duty of the State.”
    • Spanish Constitution, 1978: Article 45: “everyone has the right to enjoy an environment suitable for the development of the person as well as the duty to preserve it.”
    • Netherlands Constitution: Article 21: “it shall be the concern of the authorities to keep the country habitable and to protect and improve the environment.”
    • Constitution of Federal Republic of Brazil, 1988: Article 225: “everyone is entitled to an ecologically balanced environment.”
    • Constitution of India: (Combined reading of Article 48A and 51A): The State and citizens have fundamental duty to protect the environment (Directive Principles of State Policy).


Attitudes toward nature and viewpoints on the human species’ relationship with nature have evolved over the course of history. Societies have always had to deal with environmentally related problems. As populations have grown over time and human ability to organise society has grown in technological and economic complexity, the human-environment relationship has become increasingly problematic. In recent decades, economic affluence and greater access to information have fuelled increasing concern for the environment.

The human species has spent most of its history living as hunters and gatherers. Given the species’ survival needs for water, access to water was an important consideration in these activities. As hunting and gathering groups were relatively small and quite mobile, water quality issues were not a major consideration. As the agricultural transition occurred, humans settled into more permanent villages, raising crops and tending animals. Access to water for irrigation enabled this agricultural transition. Many villages grew up in areas with prime access to water.

These permanent settlements grew into cities as farming techniques became more sophisticated and enough crops could be raised so that food water-related issues are important to environmental agendas. This is one of the examples of why movements start to emerge, basing on your understanding put your thoughts down.