Abhishek Sharma, a Second year law student at Chandigarh University, Punjab, discusses the important cases related to the development of Environmental Law in India.


The 42nd Amendment in the Constitution of India inserted two important landmark Articles i.e. 48A and 51A(g) which comes under the Directive Principle of State Policy (DPSP. In the Judgement “Sachidanand Pandey v. State of West Bengal AIR 1987 SC 1109”, the Court is mandatorily directed to bear in mind the above two articles while dealing with an Environmental Case. India has a population of over 1.3 billion and is undisputedly the fastest growing country in terms of Population but it is far behind when it comes to preserving the environment. International Energy agency (IEA)[1] suggests that by 2040, there are apprehensions of about 9 million premature deaths in the country. There has been early warnings by researchers in India that if expedite actions by concerned  authorities are not taken then air pollution deaths nationwide could rise to as many as 1.6 million by 2030.[2] The Global movement to protect the environment begin in 1980, at a time when the Supreme Court was having an awakening of its own. The streak continued in 20th and 21st century. The article comprehensively tries to highlight some of the keynote judgements which transformed the Environment law and Environment Protection in India. 

Development Trends Shown by Supreme Court of India

India is one of the few countries to recognize environmental right to life guaranteed under Article 21. In the year 1991, in Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar[3] Supreme Court held that right to a pollution free environment is a fundamental right under Article 21. Since then, there has been no looking back and environment degradation is considered as a violation of fundamental right. In this segment of the paper, we critically analyze the reportable supreme court judgements. 

Pro-Environment cases

T.N Godavarman v. Thirumulpad v. Union of India: This was a case brought up via Writ Petition to protect the Nilgiri forest from illegal deforestation. The court itself created its own monitoring and implementation to regulate the timber forest at state and regional levels and started a movement across the country to preserve timber forest cover.  Supreme Court upheld the prohibition of Forest Conservation Act, 1980 which gives special power to central government to restrict the state of any other authorities from allowing non-forest use without prior approval of state government. However, the case is still under process via ‘Continuing Mandamus’ as it has brought a lot of unemployment to people who are engaged in wood industry.[4] 

MC Mehta v. Union of India (Oleum gas leak case)[5] : This was the landmark judgement wherein the Supreme Court established the principle of Absolute Liability and dealt with the concept of Public liability. The Court held that permission to set up industries thar are engaged in harmful substances could not be set up in areas where people are living. The instant concept of ‘Deep Pocket” was established. The Judgement guided the parliament to set up Factories Act, 1948. The Public Liability Act was passed. The Judgement directed the Municipal Governments not to sit idle and keep a check on such activities. 

MC Mehta v. Union of India (Kanpur Tanneries Case)[6] : MC Mehta filed a writ of Mandamus in the Supreme Court in order to prevent the leather tanneries from disposing industrial and other domestic effluents into the river Ganga. This was after the central government had brought Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 had been brought up. Section 24 of the Act prevents any such activity that causes harm to the water bodies. The Court also relied on Environmental Protection Act, 1986. Finally, the Court came to a conclusion that, despite the formation of such Acts and regulations, no effective steps were taken by the central government. The Court ordered the tanneries to establish primary treatment plants. A tannery without such plant cannot continue o function. In addition to this, the Court relied on Article 52A(g) which imposes a Fundamental Duty on the citizens to protect and improve natural environment. 

Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of UP[7] : A pleas was filed by an NGO named RLEK against the limestone quarrying in the valley in 1987. This Judgement brought the principle of Sustainable Development and established that permanent assets of the mankind should not be exhausted by one generation. A person should utilize the resources according to is need and not greed. 

MC Mehta v. Union of India (Shriram Industries Case)[8] : MC Mehta, a legal activist filed a petition in Supreme Court against Shriram Industries which was located in densely populated area of Kirti Nagar engaged in manufacturing of harmful substances. While on 6 December gas leaked from one of its units and caused the death of an Advocate. This incident also reminded of Bhopal Gas leak disaster. The activist filed writ petition under Article 32 and Article 21 and sought relocation of Shriram caustic chlorine and Sulphur acidic plant. The Court ordered Shriram Industries to deposit Rs. 20 Lakhs as a fine and Rs. 15 lakhs to compensate the victim. The government also passed various rules such as an inspector to be appointed to keep a check on such industries, to check workers safety standards, industries to publicize the use of chlorine and its treatment, workers to use safety masks, etc.  

MC Mehta v. Kamal Nath and Ors[9] : In this case, the government of Himachal Pradesh had leased out a protected forest area on the bank of rivers to motels for commercial use. In 1996, the Supreme Court came up with a Judgement that State shall be solely responsible for such pruposes. The Right to Pollution free environment was declared to be a part of Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution in the Judgement Subhash Kumar v State of Bihar and Ors.[10] 

Balakrishnan Nambiar v. State of Karnataka[11] The court had to decide whether a plantation in a forest which is validly authorized under the state government could be renewed. The court held that, unless the central government had de-notified the state government, it could not grant leases. The actual effect of this was that it made non-forest use more cumbersome. The court directed all states to take measures to prevent tenants from lingering and forest department to come forward and take measures. 

Chowgule & Co. Ltd. V. Goa Foundation[12] : The appellant brought a proposal to create an alternative forest to continue iron processing and export operation. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal. The court held that such promises of reforestation and afforestation were rarely fulfilled. The court maybe wrong in interpreting the miner’s considerations.

Tirupur Dyeing Factory owner’s Association v. Noyyal River Ayacutdar Protection Association & ors[13] : Similarly Noyyal river was polluted by excessive dyeing and bleaching. Supreme Court directed the units to set up effluent treatment plant within 3 months. Protective and Preventive measures were at an estimated cost of 34 crores. 

Pro-Development Cases

Indian Council for Enviro-legal Action v. Union of India[14]Justice Jeevan Reddy in this landmark judgement established that financial costs or the compensation paid for the damage caused to the air should lie with such undertakings or individuals who pollute the environment. Hence, this brought the “Polluter Pays Principle”. The court banned any sort of construction activity within 500 meters of the High Tide Line. 

KIADB V. Kenchappa[15] : Section 47 of the Karnataka Industrials Act allows the industrialist to acquire land for industrial land that overrides environmental concerns. KIADB agreed to allot land in the Green Belt, where industrial activity was specifically prohibited. The Supreme court took up the issue but did not go into the validity of section 47. This is because allotment letter made environment clearance precondition to allotment. The court seemed to be satisfied with arguments put forwards regarding development, employment, IT growth, reduced brain drains. The Supreme Court avoided the question on grounds of forum non-conveniens. 

Essar Oil Ltd. V. Halar Utkarsh Samiti & Ors[16] : The question was whether a crude oil pipeline could run through a sanctuary and marine national park. The question before apex court was whether such construction was valid by some exceptions. Further, the court observed that it was the right of the state to permit or not permit the destruction of wildlife for the betterment of the state. The dictum or approach would allow the state to destroy the wildlife according to its needs. Hence this was a case where the Supreme Court favoured the development philosophy. Subsequently an action was brought up for dismantling blue lady[17] ship from Gujarat. The court was of the opinion that this would create several jobs and 41,000 metric tons of steel.   

Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraj and Ors.[18] : The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that Jallikattu and other animals are prohibited in animal races and fights. The Court gave reference to the section 3 and section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, held that animal fights encouraged by humans for any purpose are illegal. The Court prohibited such fights even f they were a part of culture or tradition. 

Inconsistent Supreme Court: Themes and Issues

There seems to be no clear trend in Supreme Court’s environmental jurisprudence. We find inconsistency in the way supreme court has interpreted different cases. This has happened because of Supreme court’s interference in the policy matters. The constitution of India guarantees separation of power between legislature, executive and judiciary. Judiciary and politics are interrelated. It is a global process. Justice P.N Bhagwati strengthened the process of Judicial activism in the country where supreme court has interfered in policy matters of the state and designed rules, regulations and policies for the state.  The Court has created compensation schemes[19], discussed the manner in which environmental funds are to be spent, fixing price of timber and regulating its distribution. The formation of certain protection Acts and regulation hasn’t been able to function in proper manner due to carelessness of the various public authorities. The way forward shall be to create more strict laws and pro-active authority at all levels.  

Abhishek Sharma is a Second Year Law Student at Chandigarh University, Punjab

[1]International Energy agency is an association of more than 30 countries to provide date, analysis and solutions on fuel and technology, read more at https://www.iea.org/

[2]Jessie Yeung, Ahead of Diwali, New Delhi residents fear they’ll be chocking on smog instead of celebrating, 26 October 2019, available at https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/25/asia/india-diwali-pollution-intl-hnk-scli/index.html

[3](1991) 1 SCC 598.

[4]Also read, Nature Lovers Movement v. state of Kerala & ors., (2009) 5 SCC 373.

[5]1986 SCR (1) 312.

[6]AIR 1988 SC 1115.

[7]AIR 1987 SC 2187.

[8]AIR 1987 SC 965.

[9](1997) 1 SCC 388.

[10]AIR 1991 SC 420.

[11](2005) 5 SCC 353.

[12](2008) 12 SCC 646.

[13](2009) 9 SCC 737.

[14]AIR 1999 SC 1502.

[15](2006) 6 SCC 371.

[16](2004) 2 SCC 392.

[17]Blue lady Ship, Economic Times, Read full article at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/blue-lady-ship-to-be-dismantled-sc/articleshow/2357753.cms?from=mdr.

[18](2014) 7 SCC 547.

[19]MC Mehta v. union of India, AIR 1987 SC 965.

IMPORTANT – Opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IJOSLCA.

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