In this article, Sachin Vats of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law discusses Ten Most Important Environmental Law Judgments in India.

The Indian Heritage and Culture has an intimate relation with the conservation and protection of the environment. The Indian State has also enshrined it in the Constitution which requires both the State and the Citizen to “protect and improve the environment”. The Environment Act, 1986 is one of those acts which extends to the whole of India without any exception.  

Constitutional Interpretation of Environment:-

  • The 42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India added Article 48A and 51A(g) which comes under the Directive Principle of State Policy and the Fundamental Duties respectively.The Supreme Court of India in “Sachidanand Pandey v. State of West Bengal AIR 1987 SC 1109” stated that the Court is bound to bear in mind the above said articles whenever a case related to Environmental problem is brought to the Court.
  • The Article 48A states: “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forest and wildlife of the country.”
  • The Article 51A(g) imposes a duty upon every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment and confers right to come before the Court for appropriate relief.
  • The Apex Court in “Damodar Rao v. S.O. Municipal Corporation AIR 1987 AP 171” held that the environmental pollution and spoliation which is slowly poisoning and polluting the atmosphere should also be regarded as amounting to violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Public Liability and Public Nuisance:-

  • M.C. Mehta and Anr. Etc vs. Union Of India and Ors. Etc 1986 SCR (1) 312” discusses the concept of Public Liability. This case is also known as Oleum Leakage Case. It is a landmark judgment in which the principle of Absolute Liability was laid down by the Supreme Court of India. The Court held that the permission for carrying out any hazardous industry very close to the human habitation could not be given and the industry was relocated.
  • The instant case evolved the “Deep Pocket Principle”. This judgment guided the Parliament to add a new chapter to the Factory Act, 1948. The Public Liability Act was passed and the policy for the Abatement of Pollution Control was also established.
  • When the Directive Principles of State Policy has clear statutory expressions then the Court will not allow Municipal Government to make fun of the Statutes by sitting idly. It was decided by the Supreme Court in the “Municipal Corporation, Ratlam vs. Vardhichand AIR 1980 SC 1622”. The plea of lack of fund will be poor alibi when people in misery cry for justice. The office in charge and even the elected representatives will have to face a penalty if they violate the constitutional and other statutory directives.

Sustainable Development

  • The Bench of Justices PN Bhagwati and Ranganath Mishra in “Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun vs. State of Uttar Pradesh AIR 1987 SC 2187” introduced the concept of “Sustainable Development”.An NGO named RLEK filed a case against limestone quarrying in the valley in 1987.
  • It was stated that the permanent assets of mankind are not to be exhausted in one generation. The natural resources should be used with requisite attention and care so that ecology and environment may not be affected in any serious way.

Environmental Impact Assessment

  • Justice Jeevan Reddy in the landmark judgment of “Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India AIR 1999 SC 1502” held that the financial costs of preventing or remedying damage caused by pollution should lie with the undertakings which cause the pollution by adopting the “Polluter Pays Principle”.
  • The Court set a time limit for the coastal states to formulate coastal management plans and banned industrial or construction activity within 500 metres of the High Tide Line.

Water Pollution

  • The writ petition filed by the activist advocate M.C. Mehta in the Supreme Court highlighted the pollution of the Ganga river by the hazardous industries located on its banks. Justice ES Venkataramiah gave a historic judgement in “M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India AIR 1988 SCR (2) 538” ordering the closure of a number of polluting tanneries near Kanpur.
  • In this judgment it was observed that just like an industry which cannot pay minimum wages to its workers cannot be allowed to exist, a tannery which cannot setup a primary treatment plant cannot be permitted to continue to be in existence.

Animal Welfare

  • The Hon’ble Supreme Court in prohibited Jallikattu and other animal races and fights. It was observed that the Bulls cannot be performing animals in the case of “Animal Welfare Board of India vs. A. Nagaraj and Ors. (2014) 7 SCC 547”.
  • The court alluded to the section 3 and section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and declared that animal fights incited by humans are illegal, even those carried out under the guise of tradition and culture. The Court listed various recommendations and overhauled the penalties and punishment in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 to function effectively.

Air Pollution

  • The pride of India and one of the wonders of the world i.e., Taj Mahal, was facing threat due to high toxic emissions from Mathura Refineries, Iron Foundries, Glass and other chemical industries. The acid rain was a serious threat to the Taj Mahal an 255 other historic monuments within the Taj Trapezium.
  • The Apex Court in “M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India (Taj Trapezium Case) AIR 1987” delivered its historic judgment in 1996 giving various directions including banning the use of coal and cake and directing the industries to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

Environmental Awareness and Education Case

  • The Supreme Court in “M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India WP 860/1991” ordered the Cinema theatres all over the country to exhibit two slides free of cost on environment in each show. Their licenses will be cancelled if they fail to do so. The Television network in the country will give 5 to 7 minutes to televise programmes on environment apart from giving a regular weekly programme on environment.
  • Environment has become a compulsory subject up to 12th standard from academic session 1992 and University Grants Commission will also introduce this subject in higher classes in different Universities.

Wildlife and Forest Protection Case

  • The livelihood of forest dwellers in the Nilgiri region of Tamil Nadu was affected by the destruction of forests. The Supreme Court in “TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India and Ors.” passed a series of directions since 1995, till the final judgment in 2014.
  • The Apex Court decided to set up a Compensatory Afforestation Funds Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) to monitor the afforestation efforts, to oversee th compensation who suffered on account of deforestation, and to accelerate activities for preservation of natural forests.
  • A writ petition was filed by the Tarun Bharat Sangh in the Supreme Court to stop mining activities in the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary. The Court in the case of “The Tarun Bharat Sangh vs. Union of India and Ors. (1991)” banned all the mining activities in the Sanctuary.

Public Trust and Right to Life

  • The Bench of Justices Kuldip Singh and Sagir Ahmed held that the Government violated the Doctrine of Public Trust in “M.C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath and Ors. (1996)”. The Himachal Pradesh State Government had leased out a protected forest area on the bank of river Beas to motels, for commercial purposes.
  • In 1996, the Supreme Court passed a judgment that would hold the State more responsible for maintaining natural resources.
  • The Right to Pollution Free Environment was declared to be a part of Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India in the case of “Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar and Ors. (1991)”. Right to Life is a Fundamental Right which includes the Right of enjoyment of pollution free water and air for full enjoyment of life.  


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