Feb 14, 2022

Environment Law and Policies in India: A Historical Overview

Shonottra Kumar

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

These are the words of a Swedish teen activist that created a global uproar. Until this point, there were only a few who knew about climate change. It was a concept that existed in some fringes of debate circles, and for some, as the phenomena that certain world leaders called a hoax.

Greta Thunberg’s speech got widely shared on social media with celebrities and activists pledging their support to do better to protect the environment. This led to the climate movement taking off in many parts of the world. However, in India, it still lags behind.

Given that there are many other socio-political issues that may warrant one’s attention, the environment still remains a far removed issue for many people. Repercussions of environmental degradation are something that most Indians are not able to foresee. One of the reasons for this is the lack of awareness of environmental laws and policies and the history of how the current regime came to be.

It is important to know how the conversation on laws and policies originated, in order to understand the importance of and the rationale behind environmental protection.

Environmental policy in India has largely been reactive, rather than proactive. Most important developments in this regime were either in response to international conferences or unfortunate incidents with costs to the environment or human life.

Many environmentalists and researchers have categorised developments in the Indian regime into four phases: the colonial era, the United Nations Conference for Human Environment (Stockholm), the Bhopal gas tragedy and finally, judicial actions.

Environmental Policy in Colonial and Post Colonial Era

The policies from the colonial phase mainly saw the growth of laws that allowed the revenue growth of the British India government. The motive behind the first-ever environmental law, the Indian Forests Act of 1865, was to acquire a free source of wood to develop the railways and other industries. While this law afforded certain protections to ‘reserved forests’, it was mainly in place to legalise huge amounts of tree felling for the growth of trade and industry.

A similar model was followed after independence, where India sought to formalise a National Forest Policy. Yet again, the Policy’s aim continued to be the development of trade, industry, defence and communication. However, this time, there was equal emphasis on tree plantations as well, possibly to address the obvious exhaustibility of this resource.

UN Conference on Human Environment

A significant improvement in environmental consciousness was seen in response to the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in 1972 at Stockholm. The conference discussed balancing economic development with the need to protect the environment and laid down 26 guidelines for States to follow in this regard. The next decade saw India enacting most of these guidelines into law. These included the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, the 42nd Constitutional Amendment to include Article 48A, and so on.

However, some of these laws did not prove to be effective or manage to prevent the tragedies that followed.

Bhopal Gas Leak Case and its Knee Jerk Reactions

One early morning in December 1984, a poisonous gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Ltd plant in Bhopal and killed almost 4000 people and affected lakhs of others. This was followed by another gas leak in Delhi at Shriram Foods and Fertilizers. Together, these leaks changed the discourse on the environmental response in India.

These incidents forced the government to formulate a comprehensive law that regulated and recognised the interconnectivity of air, water and land together, and the need for governmental action in terms of setting pollution standards, environmental clearances for industries and response to industrial accidents.

These laws included the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1984, and the Public Liability Insurance Act 1991.

Environmental Activism in the Judiciary

While the enactment of several legislations in this time was seen to be a progressive step, the next phase that followed in the environmental regime was the development of jurisprudence through case laws. Activists sought guidelines and regulations from courts in areas where there was no law for the protection or preservation of the environment.

Cases like Subash Kumar v. State of Bihar (1991) brought a person’s right to clean water and pure air under the ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees right to life and personal liberty. Further, MC Mehta v. Union of India (1991) advocated for environmental education in schools to ensure an informed citizenry, while Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India (1996) developed the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.

As a whole, it can assertively be said that most of the environmental laws, policies and regulations that exist today are owed to public interest litigations and judicial activism from this fourth phase in Indian environmental history.

While there may not be one single policy dealing with all kinds of pollutions in India, the Indian legal regime now comprises of an extensive set of laws that set standards for the protection of different aspects of the environment, standards for industries to follow and response mechanisms in cases of accidents — Albeit that require serious amendments to adapt with time, fit the current growth rate and to be truly able to protect the environment.

Shonottra Kumar is a Research Fellow at Nyaaya, an initiative of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.

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