Environmental right means access to the unspoiled natural resources that enable survival, including land, shelter, food, water and air. The constitution of India did not include any specific provision relating to protection of environment or nature conservation. Presumably, the acute environmental problems being faced now in the country were not visualized by the framers of the constitution. With the 42 Amendment 1976, in mid 1970’s specific provisions relating to certain aspects of the environment was adopted, especially for the protection of the forest and wildlife in the country, the same were incorporated in Part-IV of the constitution and List-III (i.e., The Concurrent List of the Seventh schedule of the constitution). As a result, the constitution now has the following provisions specifically relating to environment protection and nature conservation:

Part IV: Directive Principles of State Policy (Article 48A): Protection and improvement 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.

Part IV-A Fundamental Duties (Article 51-A): 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 and  

Seventh Schedule (Article 246):

List III – Concurrent List

Item No. 17 – Prevention of cruelty to animals;

Item No. 17A – Forests and

Item No. 17B – Protection of Wild Animals and Birds.

There have been several remarkable judicial pronouncements in the recent years, especially relating Article 21 of the constitution, dealing with ‘the right to life’. The right to environment has been closely linked with the right to life.

In Francis Coralie Mullin v. Union Territory 1981 2 SCR 516, the Supreme Court held that ‘the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter…’

In M C Mehta v. UOI 1987 Supp. SCC 131, the Supreme Court held that life, public health and ecology have priority over unemployment and loss of revenue.

In Shanti Star Builders v. Narayan Totame 1990 1 SCC 520, the Supreme Court held that the right to life is guaranteed in a civilized society and would take within its sweep the right to food, the right to clothing, the right to decent environment and a reasonable accommodation to live in.

In Subhash Kumar v. the State of Bihar 1991 1 SCC 598, the Supreme Court held that the right to life is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the constitution and it includes the right to enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of life. If anything endangers or impairs that quality of life in derogation of laws, a citizen has recourse to Article 32 of the Constitution for removing the pollution of water or air that may be detrimental to life. Several new standards have also been developed over a period of time. Some of them are:

  • The standard of absolute and non-delegable liability for disasters arising from the storage of or use of hazardous materials;
  • The standards of sustainable development;
  • The Precautionary Principle and
  • The Polluter Pays Principle.

In M C Mehta v. UOI & Ors 1987 SCR (I) 819. Also called as oleum gas leak case, the Supreme Court established a new concept of managerial liability – ‘absolute and non[1]delegable’- for disasters arising from the storage of or use of hazardous materials in their factories. The enterprise must ensure that no harm results to anyone, irrespective of whether the disaster was caused by a negligent act or not;

In Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. UOI AIR 1996 Sc2715, the Supreme Court held that industries are vital for the country’s development, but with regard to the pollution caused by them, the principle of sustainable development has to be adopted as the balancing concept. The Precautionary principle and the Polluter pays principle have both been accepted as a part of the law of the country.

In Indian Council of Environment – Legal Action v. UOI 1996 3 SCC212, known as the Bichhri Pollution case, it was held that, based on the decision in the oleum gas leak case and based on the Polluter pays principle, the polluting industries were directed to compensate for the harm caused by them to the villagers in the affected areas, especially to the soil and to the underground water.

Enunciating the doctrine of ‘public trust’ in M C Mehta v. Kamal Nath, 1997 1 SCC 388 the Supreme Court held that the resources such as air, sea, water and the forests hold such a great importance for the people as a whole that by leasing ecologically fragile land to the motel management, the state govt. had committed a serious breach of public trust. Such wide interpretation of Article 21 by the Supreme Court have, over the years, become the bedrock of environmental jurisprudence and have served the cause of protecting India’s environment and to a lesser 17 extent, of livelihoods based on the natural environment.

The difficult task of maintaining the natural environment while promoting development to meet the basic requirements of people is a significant issue for policy makers today. As trade policies were liberalised as a result of globalisation, more environmental harm was done. Regarding the complex relationships between human rights and degradation of the environment, several issues arose in this area of discussion.

Regardless of the conflict between human rights and environmental protection, one thing is abundantly clear: mankind is a part of nature. Separating the interests of humans and the environment is difficult because humans require air, water, and food to survive, but contamination, pollution, or destruction of these elements poses a direct threat to human health, shelter, food, and well-being.

In fact, human rights and the environment go hand in hand because environmental degradation breaches multiple well-known human rights. This is the fundamental concept that no life can exist in the absence of a healthy environment. Because of this, it can be argued that the right to the environment is both a prerequisite for all other human rights and the foundation for the right to a healthy environment.

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