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Constitutional Jurisprudence developed by Supreme Court on Environment

In the quest for development, man since time immemorial has been continuously trespass upon the environment. In this process to manage the environment, to achieve a higher standard of living, he has caused serious irreparable damage to the environment. Several legislations have been enacted to pose a check on human actions, which depleted the environment. Prior to the year 1980 there were legislations about control of pollution but little had been done to really make pollution control a priority item on the national agenda for none was willing to bell the cat.

But the true savior has been the judiciary, which has time and again balanced man's development with the environment. The courts have been successful in developing certain initiatives, which have cumulated in making environmental law problems the most significant problems arising before the courts in contemporary India. The efforts of the courts have been noticed in international fora and maybe deservedly considered the precursor of modern environmental law in India.

An attempt is made by my side to throw light on the Constitutional jurisprudence developed by the supreme court on the environment in India and the most important of all as to what extent judiciary has been successful in this matter. In this attempt, the various judgments of Apex Court and High Courts have been taken into consideration to provide a clear picture of judicial response towards the protection of the environment in India.

Influence of Public interest litigation

PIL is more efficacious in environmental disputes because such disputes do not concern protection of enforcement of individual rights, but are mainly concerned with community rights. The traditional system of justice delivery, which is adversarial in nature, is inadequately equipped to deal with such disputes, and also to cope with a wide range of problems associated with inequality of means, opportunities, and entitlements in society. As was observed by the apex court in PUDR v. Union of India:
Public Interest Litigation is brought before the court, not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation, but it is intended to promote and vindicate the public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of a large number of people who are poor, ignorant, or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position, should not go unnoticed and unredressed.

Environmental rights and principles evolved by the Supreme court

Right to livelihood

Environmental protection in general and conservation of biodiversity, in particular, envisages conflict between the socio-economic interest of people impinging on their right to wholesome environment and ecological balance, on the one hand, and rights of livelihood of tribals or local inhabitants, on the other. Conservation signifies sustainable use i.e. controlled, restricted, or regulated use of natural resources. This, however, perforce affects the livelihood patterns of local people, whose survival depends on various uses of forest produce and wildlife. In order to keep them in harmony with the natural environment and to also meet their survival needs, the courts have given recognition to their right to livelihood.

Right to wholesome environment

The Maneka Gandhi case heralded the era of rights jurisprudence symbolizing the emergence of new and positive rights as aspects of fundamental rights. The boundaries of the fundamental right to life and personal liberty guaranteed in article 21 of the Indian Constitution were expanded to include environmental protection. The Dehradun Quarrying case[1] is a precursor of this trend. The court, in this case, without explicitly articulating this right, implicitly based its comprehensive interim orders on the presupposition that article 21 (right to life) has an environmental dimension.

Some of the later cases[2] established the relationship much more clearly by proclaiming that:
"Article 21 of the Constitution embraces the protection and preservation of nature's gifts without which life cannot be enjoyed", and that environmental degradation violates the fundamental right to life

Sustainable development
In the Doon Valley case, the Supreme Court reconciled the conflict between development and conservation and reaffirmed that development is not antithetical to environment and conservation. Both can co-exist with the interplay of mutually supportive parameters which will determine the development of public policy and law in India.

Thus, in Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India the Supreme Court observed:
The court accepted that there is a need to have sustainable development. And then in Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum case, the court held that:
the traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other is no longer acceptable". "Sustainable Development " as a balancing concept between ecology and development" is the answer.

In State of Himachal Pradesh v. Ganesh Wood Products, the apex court while discussing the relevance of environment, ecology and preservation of forest wealth in the matter of location and regulation of industry stressed on the significance of the concept of "sustainable development " and " intergenerational equity"

The court accepted that there is a need to have sustainable development. And then in Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum case, the court held that "The traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other is no longer acceptable". "Sustainable Development " as a balancing concept between ecology and development" is the answer

Doctrine of public trust[3]

This doctrine, based on Professor Joseph Sax's exposition, is the latest entry into the Indian law pertaining to the conservation of forest resources. In M.C. Mehta v. Kamalnath, the apex court held that the state as a trustee of all-natural resources is under a legal duty to protect them and that the resources are meant for public use and cannot be converted into private ownership. It is submitted that this doctrine can also be extended to arrest depletion of forest wealth because degraded resource may deprive local inhabitants and tribals of their life-support base.

The steps taken by the judiciary has introduced transparency on the issue of clearance of projects and environmental impact assessment. The constitution has maintain the balance between the environment and it's a development by initiating the various principles such as Polluters Pay Principle (PPP) in Indian Environmental Jurisprudence thereby linking right to clean and unpolluted environment with right to live under Article 21.

The Indian Constitution provides various ways and means to protect the environment not only for the people but also from the people. There is no question that India is still developing and it needs to confront the problems of development but the awareness for the protection of the environment at the same time has been the key point of efforts made by India.

The awareness spread by the Indian judiciary has been the key factor and wherever needed, the judiciary along with the help of legislature has taken unusual and sometimes drastic measures to protect the environment. For example in reminding the judiciary has sometimes intervened in the very basic affairs of the other organs of the Indian Constitution. But at the same time the steps taken by the Indian constitution remain remarkable as far as the environmental laws are concerned.

  1. The case started in July 1983 as PIL under article 32 on the central issue that illegal limestone mining in the Dehradun-Mussoorie region was devastating the fragile ecosystem in the area, and by the time the court pronounced its final judgment in August, 1988, it had passed at least five comprehensive interim orders.
  2. T. Damodar Rao v. Municipal Corporation, Hyderabad, AIR 1987 AP 171
  3. M.C. Mehta v. Kamalnath, JT 1996(1) SC 467. The Public Trust Doctrine is based on the legal principles of Roman and English Law, and has been developed in modern law by Prof. Joseph L. Sax.

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