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This article is written by Ms. Shivani Agarwal, from the Institute of Law, Nirma University. This is a comprehensive article that discusses in detail the role played by the Supreme Court of India in protecting and preserving biodiversity in light of recent events and instances.


Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life and liberty. Here, by focusing on the “Life” word used in the Article, we can see how it has strong contours to support this right. Article 21 of the Constitution does not define life as merely the act of breathing. Neither does it mean mere animal existence. It has a far broader meaning that includes the right to live with dignity, right to livelihood, right to health, etc. It is the only provision of the Constitution that has been given the broadest interpretation possible. Therefore meaning that our life is sustained by external forces as well as biological mass. The term “healthy environment” refers to all-natural and biotic factors that allow people to enjoy their right to life in its purest form. Since the environment provides all of life’s necessities, there has always been a strong relationship between humans and the environment. 

Human life on Earth is impossible without a natural and congenial environment. Man has always exploited nature in his attempt to make life more comfortable. The exploitation of natural resources is caused by agriculture, industrialization, and infrastructure growth. Human activities produce a range of wastes and by-products, which can build up over time and become harmful to naturally growing plants, animals, and humans. Certain articles of the Indian Constitution also make it the state’s responsibility to protect the environment. So, in order to deal with these ever-increasing problems, the parliament has enacted several acts, but it is a court that often keeps a check on proper execution of these enactments, and the judiciary has played an important role in interpreting the laws to protect the environment.

It has been accepted as an inseparable part of the Right to Life under Article 21 and is well established when other constitutional provisions are considered. When the world began to feel the impact of industrialization around the turn of the century, the “Right to Live in a Healthy Environment” became more important. Though interpreting the constitution in a positive light, the Indian judiciary, as the custodian of the constitution, has been giving a beacon light for such valuable rights. The judicial timeline is filled with landmark decisions that established that the right to life extends well beyond mere breathing and walking, as well as formed Environmental Jurisprudence. The role of the judiciary in environmental protection is critical. While hearing environmental litigations brought by environmental NGOs and enlightened public figures such as M.C. Mehta, the courts have handed down landmark decisions, thereby obliging public bodies to address pressing environmental concerns. 

People have also applauded judicial activism in the field of environmental protection. It is important to remember, however, that judicial activism has significant limitations, and that executive laxity and environmental apathy cannot be remedied solely by judicial activism.

Provisions of Indian Constitution relevant to the environment

Article 47

This Article states the duty of the State to increase the level of nutrition, and standard of living, and to improve public health. It is one of the fundamental and primary duties of the State to raise the standard of living of its people and prohibit the consumption of intoxicating drinks and drugs, except for medical purposes.

Article 48 A

This Article talks about the protection and improvement of the natural environment and safeguarding forests and wildlife. It is the fundamental duty of the State to safeguard and protect the forests and wildlife of the country.

Article 51A (g)

The Article states the fundamental duty of the State to protect and improve the natural environment that includes forests, rivers, lakes, and wildlife.

Article 253

This Article gives power to the parliament to make any law for the whole or any part of the territory of India in order to implement any treaty, convention, or agreement with any other country.

Article 246

This Article provides for the list of subject matters of laws that can be made by the Parliament and by the legislatures of the State.

Article 32

This Article gives power to the Supreme Court to issue orders or directions or writs for enforcement of any of the rights conferred by the Part III of the Indian Constitution.

Article 226

This Article gives power to the High Court to issue certain writs for enforcement of any of the rights conferred by the Part III of the Indian Constitution.

Important interpretation of Constitution vis-a-vis health and environment by judiciary

  • In the case of Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court of India ruled that water and air are an inalienable part of “life” under Article 21 of the Constitution. This was nearly the first step in constitutional interpretation for the protection of a safe environment for life.
  • In the case of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of UP, the Supreme Court of India held that protecting and safeguarding people’s rights to live in a healthy environment must be achieved even if it has some economic cost.
  • Judges have for the first time in Indian Environmental Jurisprudence formulated the principle of sustainable development when describing the significance of the climate and health aspect of life in the case of Vellore Citizens.
  • While incorporating some features into the fundamental right to life and liberty through broad interpretation, the Supreme Court of India developed some essential principles that were required to ensure an atmosphere for the right to live in a healthy environment.
  • Polluter Pays Principle – It supports a remedial approach that focuses on restoring natural damage. It is a concept in international environmental law that states that the polluting party is responsible for the harm or damage caused to the environment. In the case of Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, it was made a part of the constitutional decision.
  • Precautionary Principle – Environmental measures must anticipate, prevent, and attack the causes of environmental degradation. The lack of scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to postpone actions.
  • Public Trust Doctrine – The Public Trust Doctrine is based on the idea that some resources, such as air, water, the sea, and forests, are so essential to the general public that making them private property would be completely unjustified. It was established in the case of M.C. Mehta vs. Kamalnath & Others.
  • The doctrine of Sustainable Development – In the Vellore Citizens case and the RLEK, Dehradun case, the Supreme Court stated that sustainable development has become accepted as a viable idea for eradicating poverty and improving the standard of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the supporting ecosystem.
  • The fundamental right to Water – The Supreme Court of India held in Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union of India and Ors. that “water is a basic necessity for human existence and is part of the right to life and human rights as enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.”
  • Compensation to victims of environmental degradation – The Supreme Court’s power to provide remedial relief for a proven violation of fundamental rights involves the power to award compensation. The “no fault” liability standard (absolute liability) for industries engaged in hazardous activities was adopted in the Delhi gas leak case, resulting in significant improvements in India’s liability and compensation laws. 
  • The Supreme Court ruled in the Charan Lal Sahu case that Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life, which includes the right to a wholesome environment. To support this argument, the Court cited Articles 48A and 51A(g) of the Constitution, also said that environmental pollution would be a violation of Article 21.
  • When an enterprise is engaged in an inherently dangerous or hazardous practice, and harm is caused to someone as a result of a mishap in the process of such dangerous or naturally unsafe movement, such as the escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely obliged to compensate any of the people who are harmed by the accident, and such risk is not subject to any exemptions. As a result, the Supreme Court established a new trend of absolute liability with no exceptions (Judgement in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Case).
  • Environmental damage would be classified as a public nuisance, and public officials would be obligated to assist in the mitigation of the effects of such nuisance by the use of Public Interest Litigation as a powerful tool (Vardhichand v. Ratlam Municipal Council).
  • As part of environmental education, the Supreme Court in the M.C. Mehta’s case ordered the Union Government to issue directions to all state governments and union territories to implement through authorities as a condition of license on all cinema halls, that no less than two slides/messages on the environment must be shown free of charge between each show.

Role of judiciary in developing environmental jurisprudence

The Indian courts’ power and judicial activism has resulted in a powerful and an ever-expanding fundamental rights system. The Stockholm Conference on Human Environment, held in 1972, has raised global consciousness, as well as in India it aided the enactment of the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1976. This amendment imposes certain environmental duties on citizens [Article 51A (g)] as well as on the State (Article 48-A). The legal status of Articles 51(A)-(g) and 48-A under the constitutional scheme is enabling in nature and not legally binding per se; however, such provisions have frequently been interpreted as legally binding by Indian courts. 

Furthermore, courts have used these provisions to explain and establish a legally binding constitutional right to the environment as part of Article 21. Following that, an attempt has been made to show how Indian courts have used both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ international environmental laws to establish a strong environmental jurisprudence in domestic law. The Second Period of judicial adoption (1985-1995) saw an increase in the global and national influence of international environmental law. At this period, international environmental law was used to interpret the nature of state obligations relating to the right to life, which has been expanded to include the right to a healthy and decent environment. There were few references to international environmental treaties prior to 1996, despite the fact that India was a signatory to more than 70 multilateral environmental treaties by 1990.

Important case laws

The Indian judiciary system has given various judgments where the Courts have tried to preserve the environment and also so that it can be protected for sustainable development.

Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union of India & Ors.

The case was decided by the Supreme Court in the year 2000. Narmada river is the fifth largest river in the Indian peninsula. The river basin area is about 1 lakh sq. km. Narmada Bachao Andolan, an NGO which has been at the frontline of the anti-Sardar Sarovar Dam protests, had filed a writ petition with this Court, posing a number of questions, including relief and rehabilitation.

The court had to decide if the Union of India’s environmental clearance for the building of Sardar Sarovar dam had been given without sufficient review and appreciation of the project’s environmental effects. Furthermore, it was investigated whether the Ministry of Environment’s environmental conditions had been violated, and if so, what the legal consequences of the violations were. According to the facts, the government was very concerned about the environmental implications of the project, and since there was a disagreement between the Ministries of Water Resources and Environment and Forests, the matter was decided by the Prime Minister, who gave the project his approval. 

The Supreme Court gave an order for taking compensatory measures for the protection of the environment by complying with the scheme that has been framed by the Government and also gave an order to continue the construction by following certain measures.

The Bhopal gas tragedy

This case was a disaster that shook the Indian nation to its core. In 1984, a gas leak occurred at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal that killed almost 15,000 people and the release of the gas methyl isocyanate or otherwise known as MIC, it left many generations suffering from harmful effects. The gas leak is still considered as one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.   

One of the major issues in the case was an absolute liability. According to the principle of absolute liability, if a business engages in a risky or potentially harmful operation, and any damage occurs as a result of that activity, the business is absolutely liable to pay for the harm, and there should be no defence to the business to argue that it took all necessary precautions and that the harm happened beyond its fault. 

The number of cases was increasing day by day after the gas leak incident. The government enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act, 1985. This Act provided the power of an exclusive right to represent and act on behalf of those who are entitled to compensation as a result of the Bhopal gas leak to the Central government. Since the government had held stakes in UCIL, it would have made the government partially liable for the incident.      

The central government initiated a lawsuit against UCC in the Southern District Court of New York, USA, claiming that Indian courts were unable to properly deal with the situation and that the case should be handled in US courts.

The Union of India lodged a lawsuit in Bhopal District Court in September 1986, demanding 3.5 billion rupees in provisional reimbursement, which the Madhya Pradesh High Court reduced to 2.5 billion rupees. UCC took its case to the Supreme Court. UCC was directed by the court to pay 470 million dollars (roughly 750 crore rupees) that was considered as settlement of all the claims, rights and liabilities that arose out of the Bhopal gas tragedy. 

The amount at which the suit was settled was comparatively very less than that which was asked for in the lawsuit. In 1989, the Supreme Court consolidated several appeals and reopened criminal cases, ruling that if the amount of restitution is insufficient, the state is obligated to make up the difference.

Vehicular pollution case

In this case, the petitioner MC Mehta urged the Court to pass such orders that would direct the municipality to reduce vehicular pollution in New Delhi. The Apex Court considered the petition and also acknowledged that pollution of the environment has become a global problem. The Court while deciding for the case, referred to Article 48A and Article 51A(g) stating that the Indian Constitution recognises the importance of the environment.   

The Court concluded by stating that since the Constitution provides for preserving the environment, it is the duty of the State to protect the environment. The Court established a committee to analyse the problem of vehicular pollution in New Delhi. The objective of forming a committee was to assess the current status of technology in order to reduce pollution, to find some low-cost alternatives for vehicles so that vehicular pollution can be reduced and some other such objectives. 

Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Vardhichand

In the case, the Court has tried to tackle the environmental issues and to establish certain duties of various statutory bodies by application of public nuisance doctrine as prescribed in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. This case was decided back in the year 1980, where the residents of Ratlam city of Madhya Pradesh faced problems because of the acrid smell that came from the drains. One of the key causes for the problem was the overflow of distillery waste into the drains, which posed a health risk to the general population. Due to the shortage of toilets and the prevalence of slums in the district, incidents of open defecation have also been recorded.

Aggrieved by the problems mentioned in the facts, the residents knocked on the doors of the Executive Magistrate. The Magistrate ordered the municipality to take immediate actions to resolve the problem. The Magistrate directed the municipality to prepare a plan/programme for the same and take actions accordingly by removing the drain and constructing a proper system so that open defecations could be prevented and the Magistrate provided a six months time period for the same. The municipality failed in performing the said actions as stated in the order because of a shortage of funds and the matter reached the Supreme Court of India.

The primary issue that the Court had to decide upon was whether the failure of the municipality because of lack of funds to execute the order passed by the executive Magistrate absolved it from statutory liability or not.

Justice Iyer related the matter in the provisions as mentioned in the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Code of Criminal Procedure under the heading of public nuisance. The Court stated that In terms of the contractual mandate, the municipality cannot avoid its responsibilities in violation of the rule book/legislation, which imposes a constructive obligation on it. Further, the Court observed the implementation of Section 133 Cr.P.C. as it covers the aspect of public nuisance. As per Section 133, it talks about the powers of the Magistrate/Sub-Divisional Magistrate in the process where the facts and circumstances of the case have talked about ‘conditional order’. Section 188 of IPC states that whoever defies and does not follow the public authority’s direction shall be punished.

The Court after referring to various judgements stated that such matters not only affects the rights of private individuals but also the health of the public at large. The Court upheld the order passed by the Magistrate. The effect of a deteriorating metropolitan climate on the vulnerable was expressly acknowledged by the Court. It tied basic public health services to human rights, requiring the municipality to provide adequate sanitation and drainage.

Judicial activism towards the protection of the environment

The term “judicial activism” refers to the higher judiciary’s involvement in cases including environmental and human rights violations. The Supreme Court has not only played a key role in the enforcement of environmental legislation, but it has also interpreted Article 21 of the Constitution to provide a constitutional right to a safe and pollution-free environment.

The year of 1972 has been of great importance for the concept of environmental jurisprudence. The Stockholm conference of 1972 entirely changed the course of action, the conference created a wholly new and a different perspective for the countries. The Conference, which was held in Stockholm from June 5 to 16, 1972, considered the need for a shared vision and set of values to encourage and direct the world’s peoples in the protection and enhancement of the human environment. They also developed a series of illuminated and cardinal principles to be followed when dealing with nature for the purpose of a man-made creation. 

The Stockholm declaration adopted various principles, some of them are as follows:

  1. Natural resources must be safeguarded.
  2. Prevention of ocean pollution.
  3. Planning should be done in a rational manner so that it resolves conflicts between environment and development.
  4. Population policies must be planned by the governments as per their reasonability.
  5. Usage of science and technology to improve the environment.
  6. Wildlife must be safeguarded.
  7. Every nation has its own standards regarding environmental protection.
  8. To have cooperation on international issues.

Though the Government of India was not signatory to the Stockholm declaration but after 1972, National governments had embraced construction with vigour and command, but were less concerned with environmental and ecological conservation. Around 1982, the idea of Public Interest Litigation began to gain traction as a result of the recognition of the concept by Justice P.N. Bhagvati.  

On the one hand, the government had made no ambitious strategy for industrialization, while private interests eyed green fields and cheap natural resources without taking any ethical or social duty toward societies that preserved and retained such a vital ecological balance. The Apex Court came to save the nation from all these problems, to help those who were forced to migrate to some other places because of the hazardous environmental damage such as mining, etc. or were living with some severe health effects. The government had no system to deal with such circumstances prior to the Indian judiciary’s proactive position. Prior to the year 1986, there was no comprehensive rule. After 14 years of the Stockholm Conference, the Environment Protection Act was enacted in 1986.   

The Indian judiciary interpreted the law in favour of marginalized citizens, counting environmental conservation as expenditure by populations living near nature, and entrepreneurs would share economic benefits with those communities because ecological balance contributes to industrial production as well. The Indian judiciary’s solid ethical and legal backing has modelled the entire environmental revolution in India, and they are now leading across the globe. The Indian judiciary, especially the Supreme Court of India, has consolidated environmental jurisprudence on a case-by-case basis and established some notable rules for lower courts to pursue when dealing with environmental cases. They’ve attempted to fill the void left by the legislature, which has been crippled by governmental machinery. 

Apart from non-compliance with statutory norms by polluters, the failure of state agencies to effectively enforce environmental laws resulted in further degradation of the environment, affecting people’s health and forcing environmentalists and residents of polluted areas, as well as non-governmental organisations, to approach the judiciary. Seeing the necessary situations to step up and take actions, the legislature took the initiative to protect the environment, but the executive’s inability to enforce environmental laws in India paved the way for the judiciary’s involvement. 

The judiciary has attempted to address the controversy between construction and the environment on many occasions. The instrument of Public Interest Litigation was used to establish India’s environmental jurisprudence. The judiciary liberalised the principle of locus standi under the PIL, allowing citizens to approach the courts when the public interest is threatened by the actions of the state, an agency, or an entity. The principle of PIL plays an important role in Indian environmental law, which is a unique aspect. 


If there is something that the judiciary has solely protected and controlled since independence, it is the environment. Judges took it very seriously, and although no observations were made, implementation was carefully monitored until it was completed in letter and spirit. The Indian nation in the last 15-20 years has seen an exponential transformation in environmental law. The Government at the Centre as well as the State governments have initiated to lay out and form plans to protect and preserve the environment. 

The Indian judiciary, especially the higher judiciary, which includes the Supreme Court of India and state high courts, has taken a significant role in the creation of laws in this field. The concept of Public Interest Litigation has provided some really good and decent measures for environmental protection. On several occasions, the Indian judiciary used the tactic of public interest lawsuits to promote environmental conservation. The fundamental premise behind Public Interest Litigation is that the poor should not be refused access to justice due to a lack of education or resources.  

Several unarticulated freedoms implied in Article 21 of the Constitution, such as the right to free legal aid and the right of prisoners to be handled with respect, were recognised as constitutional rights by the Supreme Court. The right to a healthy community was also used in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the right to personal liberty. The Supreme Court’s constitutionalization of environmental issues is the most significant accomplishment of the Indian Constitution. When we talk about the situations prior to 1980, there existed laws to control the environmental pollution such as air pollution, water pollution, etc., but, in terms of implementing, these laws were observed to be weak. Although, if we talk about the current scenario, the Apex Court has broadened the scope of environmental rights.   

The Supreme Court is issuing rulings that result in the existence of new rights. Eventually, this court established new protections under Article 21, including the right to health and a pollution-free climate.


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