Environment rights are integral to the global discourse on human rights. The right to a healthy environment, in particular, has become a focal point in both legislative and judicial narratives across the globe.
In India, a country that is home to a rich environmental heritage juxtaposed with profound environmental challenges, the right to a healthy environment holds special significance. The recognition and evolution of this right, as seen through the prism of the Indian Constitution, presents a compelling narrative of the nation’s journey towards environmental justice.
This article endeavours to traverse the intricate path of the right to a healthy environment in the Indian Constitution, examine the challenges in its realisation, and highlight the pioneering role of the judiciary in moulding its trajectory.
Genesis of the rights
The Indian Constitution, while drafted in the backdrop of newly gained independence, was far-sighted in its approach towards sustainable development and environmental protection. It is important to note that the Constitution does not explicitly articulate environmental rights.
Instead, the nascent beginnings of environmental obligations are to be found in Articles 48A and 51A (g) of the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) and Fundamental Duties, respectively.
However, the fully-fledged emergence of the right to a healthy environment can be attributed to the expansive interpretation of Article 21, the right to life and personal liberty, by the Indian judiciary.
The principle of environmental justice asserts the right of every individual to fair treatment and meaningful involvement in environmental decision-making. The Indian Constitution, through its fundamental rights, particularly Article 21, serves as the bulwark of environmental justice in India. It ensures that no community is disproportionately burdened with adverse environmental impacts.
While the Constitution sets the stage for the realisation of environmental rights, it also presents a unique set of challenges. The primary challenge lies in the lack of explicit mention of environmental rights, which often leads to ambiguities in interpretation and enforcement.
Secondly, the competing constitutional values of environmental protection and economic development often become difficult to reconcile. Lastly, the enforcement of environmental rights often stumbles upon barriers such as inadequate public awareness, infrastructural constraints, and the socio-economic realities of a developing nation.
Expanding the canvas
The Indian judiciary has played a monumental and transformative role in interpreting and expanding the scope of environmental rights. From the landmark case of MC Mehta v.
Union of India, where the Supreme Court introduced the principle of “absolute liability” for harm caused by hazardous industries, to the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, where the apex court brought the principles of ‘Sustainable Development,’ ‘Precautionary Principle,’ and ‘Polluter Pays Principle’ to the centrestage of environmental jurisprudence, the judiciary’s proactive role has been instrumental.
Furthermore, the concept of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has democratised environmental justice by making the legal process more accessible to the common citizen.
Although the DPSPs are nonjusticiable in nature, they form the edifice on which the state’s obligations towards environmental protection rest. Article 48A mandates the state to protect and improve the environment, while Article 51A (g) puts forth the duty of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment. These constitutional directives have informed and guided environmental policy-making in India, laying the groundwork for a culture of environmental responsibility.
The balancing act
The dilemma of reconciling economic development with environmental protection is a quintessential constitutional conundrum. However, the Indian judiciary, through its rulings, has consistently emphasised the concept of ‘sustainable development’ as a means to harmonize development goals with ecological imperatives. This approach is reflective of the understanding that short-term economic gains must not be pursued at the expense of longterm environmental sustainability.
The road ahead
Despite the noteworthy strides in judicial recognition and expansion of environmental rights, their effective enforcement remains a formidable challenge. The path forward necessitates increased public participation, strengthening of environmental regulations, capacitybuilding of enforcement agencies, and the integration of environmental concerns into all facets of policy and decision-making.
While the term ‘sustainable development’ is conspicuously absent in the Constitution, the underlying philosophy of sustainable development is intrinsically woven into its fabric. The judiciary has consistently reiterated the need for development strategies to be sustainable, thereby affirming the principles of inter-generational equity, the precautionary principle, and the polluter pays principle.
The constitutional journey of environmental rights in India, specifically the right to a healthy environment, is a narrative of ongoing evolution. From being ancillary directives to becoming intrinsic to the fundamental right to life, the right to a healthy environment has travelled a considerable distance.
As India grapples with the environmental challenges of the 21st century, this constitutional right will continue to guide the nation towards a future of environmental justice and sustainable development, thereby ensuring that the right to a healthy environment is not just a constitutional promise, but a lived reality for all its citizens.