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Climate Justice: Upholding Citizens' Rights in the Face of Environmental Challenges

The technology is here. The people are ready. Scientists have spoken. Progressive businesses are stepping forward. Now we need governments to take climate action!" -- WWF International[1]

On April 8, 2024, the Hon'ble Supreme Court, through its judicial activism apparatus, expanded the scope of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution by including one of the major aspects of this century: climate change. In this historic judgment, the court wholeheartedly accepted the right of citizens to be free from the adverse effects of climate change.[2] M K Ranjitsinh and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors.[3] has proven to be a milestone case where the Hon'ble Supreme Court, in a writ petition, through its three-judge bench, considered a plethora of issues, with the major one being the conservation of a critically endangered species, i.e., The Great Indian Bustard, as classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Constitutional Provisions And Judicial Precedents

The Constitution of India, under Article-48A, mandates that the State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment. Additionally, under Article-51A(g), the State imposes a fundamental duty on citizens to protect the environment and show compassion for other living entities. Furthermore, Article-21 guarantees the right to life for every person. In MC Mehta v. Kamal Nath[4], the court emphasized that Article-48A and 51A(g) must be read conjointly with Article-21.

In Bombay Dyeing and Mfg. Co. Ltd. v. Bombay Environmental Action Group[5], the court highlighted the probable threats arising from climate change. Consequently, the Supreme Court, after conjoining these provisions, has recognized the right of every citizen to be protected from the adverse effects of climate change and has tasked the state with formulating policies to safeguard the environment and living entities from the harmful impacts of climate change.[6][7]

International Conventions And Environmental Jurisprudence

India is a signatory to the Paris Agreement of 2015 under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and has pledged to attain the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.[8] Article-3(1)[9] of UNFCCC underscores the responsibilities of Member Countries to protect the Climate System for the interest of Present and Future generations on the lines of equity. Whereas Article-3(3)[10] highlights the requirements of preventive measures to reduce the adverse effects of climate change.

Human rights are inalienable rights that cannot and shall not be taken away from humans by virtue of being humans, and all states across the world are required to protect the basic rights of their subjects. Various International Conventions and reports have acclaimed the interlink between Climate Change and Human Rights. For instance, the Paris Agreement, in its preamble, has highlighted that Climate Change, being the common concern of Humankind, shall be dealt with in a holistic manner, which shall include the protection of human rights in general and of vulnerable groups in particular. In 2018, the UN special rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment concluded that the protection of human rights imposes an obligation on states to enact and implement policies to reduce carbon emissions and to protect citizens.[11]

There is a growing consciousness among courts worldwide for taking a stance on Climate Policy and the rights of concerned citizens. In the case of State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda Foundation[12], the court directed the government to implement policies to control greenhouse gas emissions. Further, in Sacchi, et al v. Argentina, et al[13], it was opined that states shall take responsibility for their actions and omissions, the results of which can be seen from transboundary effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Supreme Court's judement can be seen as an extension of Judicial activism on this international line.

The court considered India's target of generating 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030, as pledged in the Paris Agreement.[14] It faced the dilemma of prioritizing the protection of the Great Indian Bustard or fulfilling India's pledge, which requires constructing overhead cables for solar generation in Rajasthan. In Mahendra Singh Borawat & Ors vs Union of India & Ors.[15], the Court restricted overhead transmission lines and appointed a committee to evaluate laying underground high-voltage lines case by case.

It directed all low voltage power lines to be laid underground in priority and potential GIB habitats in the future. Bird diverters were to be installed for existing power lines until they were converted to underground ones. Relying on reports from the Wildlife Institute of India, the Court identified priority, potential, and additional important areas for the GIB. In a recent judgment, the Court modified its earlier order, stating there's no basis for a blanket direction to underground high and low voltage power lines in a vast area of about 99,000 square kilometers. It found converting all overhead transmission lines underground was not feasible.[16]

In the 21st century, countries worldwide are urged to actively participate in environmental protection by formulating and implementing policies. Despite India having the Protection of Environment Act and other laws, it lacks a specific regulatory framework to address Climate Change and its environmental impacts, allowing the government to evade liability.

It's high time for the Central Government to develop policies and frameworks in line with this urgency. It's worth noting that inaction towards the adverse effects of climate change has been deemed a violation of human rights by European courts[17], placing similar liability on governments failing to take prompt action.

  1. World Wildlife Fund,
  2. Nikhil Ghanekar, What is a citizen's 'right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change', underlined by Supreme Court?, The Indian Express (April 9, 2024 11:40 IST),
  3. Writ Petition (Civil) No.838/2019
  4. (2000) 6 SCC 213
  5. 2006 AIR SCW 1392
  6. Landmark Supreme Court verdict on climate change, Deccan Herald (11 April 2024, 02:57 IST),
  7. Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, India's Supreme Court Expands 'Right to Life' to Include Protection Against Climate Change, EcoWatch (Apr 9, 2024),
  8. Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations,
  9. UNFCCC,,PRINCIPLES&text=1.,differentiated%20responsibilities%20and%20respective%20capabilities.
  10. ibid
  11. J.H. Knox, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, Human Rights Council, A/HRC/37/59 of 24 January 2018,
  12. The State of the Netherlands (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy) v Urgenda Foundation, HR 20 December 2019, ECLI:NL:HR:2019:2006, para 2.1
  13. Committee on the Rights of the Child, Sacchi et al. v. Argentina (dec.), 22 September 2021, CRC/C/88/D/104/2019
  14. India set to achieve 450 GW renewable energy installed capacity by 2030: MNRE, Press Information Bureau,
  15. Original Application No. 64/2016 (CZ)
  16. Right against climate change part of right to life, equality: Read the Supreme Court's exact arguments, Down to Earth (08 April 2024),
  17. John Letzing & Minji Sung, Is climate inaction a human rights violation?, World Economic Forum (Apr 9, 2024),

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