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PIL and Environmental Protection in India - Constitutional Manifestation

Updated: Feb 26, 2020


The concept ‘the right to life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution of India was not given an expansive dimension in the beginning but gradually Courts in India started expanding the meaning of this term by playing an active role.

The question, how to bring about a balance between the environment and development, poses a great dilemma. The Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. State of U.P. is the first case where the Supreme Court of India made an attempt to look into this question. In this case, the petitioners, a voluntary organisation, feared that mining activities of the lessees caused ecological disturbance.

The lessees had rights given by the Government and on conditions laid down under a specific law. According to a committee of experts, appointed by the Supreme Court, mining of limestone in certain areas was found dangerous and damaging ecological balance.

The Supreme Court ordered to close the mining operations in these areas, though it allowed mining operations in certain areas reported as not dangerous.

The Court considered the hardship caused to the lessee but thought that ‘it is a price that has to be paid for protecting and safeguarding the right of the people to live in healthy environment with minimal disturbance to ecological balance’.

What is important is that the case was filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India and orders were given with emphasis on the need to protect environment.

Under Article-32 the Supreme Court of India can only be approached for the violation of fundamental rights and there is no specific fundamental right to environment mentioned as fundamental rights in our Constitution.

This means that the Supreme Court treated the right to clean environment as a fundamental right and this can only be done by expanding the meaning of ‘the right to life’ as it appears in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution as one of the fundamental rights.

The right to humane and healthy environment is seen indirectly approved in the M. C. Mehta group of cases decided subsequently by the Supreme Court. In the first M. C. Mehta (M. C. Mehta v. Union of India) case, the Court had to deal specifically with the impact of activities concerning manufacturing of hazardous products in a factory.

The activities were a threat to the workers in the factory, as well as members of the general public living outside. It was alleged that the leakage of Oleum gas from the factory resulted in the death of the person and affected the health of several others. The question was, whether or not the plant should be closed down.

Many conditions were laid down under which industries of hazardous products should be allowed to restart. In doing so the Court found that the case raised ‘some seminal questions concerning the scope and ambit of Articles-21 and 32 of the Constitution’.

Although the second M. C. Mehta case, (M. C. Mehta v. Union of India) the Court modified some of the conditions, the third M. C. Mehta case, (M. C. Mehta v. Union of India) posed an important question concerning the amount of compensation payable to the victims affected by leakage of Oleum gas from the factory.

The Court held that it could entertain a petition under Article 32 of the Constitution, and laid down the principles on which the quantum of compensation could be computed and paid. This case is significant as it evolved a new jurisprudence of liability to the victims of pollution caused by an industry engaged in hazardous and inherently dangerous activity.

Although it did not specifically declare the existence of the right to a clean and healthy environment in Article 21, the Court evolved the principle of ‘absolute liability’ of compensation through interpretation of the constitutional provisions relating to the right to live and to the remedy under Article 32 for violation of fundamental rights.

The basis for this decision is clear and unambiguous – the fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment.

In Chhetriya Pardushan Mukti Sangharsh Samati v. State of U. P. and Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar, the Honorable Supreme Court took a step forward. Chief Justice Sabyasachi Mukerji in Chhetriya Pardushan case observed:

“Every citizen has a fundamental right to have the enjoyment of quality of life and living as contemplated in Art. 21 of the Constitution of India.”

The decisions of the Courts have widened the scope of the right to life by reading into it, the right to a clean environment. Thus, Courts in India have lived up to the needs of the time and have made significant contributions in evolving new principles and remedies.


Contrary to the past practices (strictly as per the locus standi principle) wherein, only a person himself/herself, being aggrieved, could have come knocking the doors of the courts, today a person acting bonafide and having sufficient interest can move the courts for redressing public injury, enforcing public duty or for protecting social and collective rights and interests.

This is known as the dilution of the principle of locus standi. The ability to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the High Courts under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution of India is a remarkable step forward in providing protection for the environment. Courts have widened the dimensions of the substantive rights to health and a clean and unpolluted environment.

In most cases, this progress was made with aid of PIL. The courts by allowing a case to be filed as PIL have shown that the procedure cannot come in the way of ensuring that the justice is done. In Tarun Bhagat Sangh Alwar v. Union of India, a social action group challenged the legality of granting a mining license in the protected area of a forest. Upholding the contention, the Supreme Court observed

“This litigation should not be treated as the usual adversarial litigation. Petitioners are aid of a purpose high on the national agenda. Petitioners concern for the environment, ecology and the wildlife should be shared by the Government”

The observation of the Court is important as it emphasizes the rationale of PIL in environmental issues. Any person who raises an environmental issue, whether individual, group or institution is equally concerned with the problem as is the State. Such litigation can never be considered as one of adversarial confrontation with the State.

In the 1984 case of ‘Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India’, Justice P. N. Bhagwati stated that if a person was physically or economically unable to approach the Court, he/she “may move the Court even by just writing a letter,” because the legal system would otherwise be inaccessible to some of its citizens.

The range of issues in PILs has been very broad. It extends from compassion to animals and privileges of tribal people and fishermen, to the eco-system of the Himalayas and forests, eco-tourism, land use patterns and problems facing a village due to ecological damage.

The cause of environment has been taken up before courts through PIL by a wide spectrum of people in society. Lawyers, association of lawyers, environmentalists, groups and centers dedicated to environment protection and forest conservation, welfare forums, consumer research centers have successfully agitated environmental issues before Courts.


The powers of the Supreme Court to issue directions under Article-32 and that of the High Courts to issue directions under Article-226 have attained great significance in environmental litigation. There are several such directions which have resulted as milestones in the path of environmental protection.

1. Evolution of doctrines in environmental jurisprudence

The formulation of certain principles to develop a better regime for protecting the environment is a remarkable achievement of PILs. In ‘M. C. Mehta v. Union of India’, the Supreme Court formulated the doctrine of ‘absolute liability’ for harm caused by hazardous and inherently dangerous industries.

In Sludge’s case (‘Indian Council for Enviro- Legal Action v. Union of India’, when the people in a village suffering from lethal waste left behind by a group of chemical industries were asked to be given the compensation by such industries by the Supreme Court, the Court applied the ‘Polluter’s Pay Principle’.

The ‘Precautionary Principle’ came to be directly applied in M. C. Mehta v. Union of India, for protecting the Taj Mahal in Agra from air pollution. Expert studies proved that emissions from coke/coal based industries in the vicinity of Taj Mahal had damaging effect on Taj Mahal.

The Supreme Court ordered that the potential polluters had to change over to natural gas as an industrial fuel and those that were not in a position to obtain gas connections- for any reason-should stop functioning in the vicinity of Taj Mahal and relocate themselves in alternative plots outside the demarcated area within a stipulated time.

The Supreme Court has also applied the principle of ‘Sustainable Development’ in several cases to balance the developmental concerns with the ecological balance. The Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. State of U.P. can be cited as an example here.

2. Protection of Social Environment

The rights to livelihood and clean environment are of grave concern to the courts whenever they issue a direction in an environmental case.

Laborers engaged in the asbestos industry were declared to be entitled to medical benefits and compensation for health hazards which were detected after retirement by the Honorable Supreme Court in ‘CERC v. Union of India’.

3. Filling gaps in law and lacunae in administration

In most cases courts have issued directions to remind Government authorities of their responsibility to protect the environment. Thus, directions were given to local bodies, especially municipal authorities, to remove garbage and waste and clean towns and cities.

4. Environmental awareness and education

The directives of the Supreme Court went to the extent of spreading environmental awareness and literacy as well as the launching of environmental education not only at the school level, but also at the college level. In M. C. Mehta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court emphasized the need for the awareness of environmental protection.

The Court also required every State Government and Education Boards to take steps for environmental education.

Thus, it is clear from the above discussion that the PIL has played a very important role in the field of environment protection by empowering the courts in India to do whatever it can for this noble cause.

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