Examine the contributions of the Supreme Court in the constitutionalization of environmental issues in India citing relevant case laws.


In a case relating to the conservation of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the Supreme Court has ruled that people have a “right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change”, which should be recognised by Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.


  • Introduce your answer by outlining that constitutionalization of environmental issues refers to the process of embedding environmental protection within the constitutional framework.
  • In the main body, discuss the Supreme Court’s pivotal judgments, such as Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar and the expansion of Articles 21 and 14, that have advanced environmental rights as constitutional obligations.
  • Conclude by affirming the Supreme Court’s crucial role in integrating environmental justice into the legal fabric, ensuring government accountability and sustainable development.


The constitutionalization of environmental issues refers to the process of integrating environmental protection and sustainability into the constitutional framework of a country. This approach underscores the intrinsic value of the environment, beyond its utility to humans, and acknowledges the critical role that a healthy environment plays in the realization of other human rights, such as the right to life, health, and dignity.

Contributions of the Supreme Court in the Constitutionalization of Environmental Issues:

  • Right to a Healthy Environment as part of Article 21: The landmark case of Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar (1991) recognized the right to a pollution-free environment as an integral part of the fundamental right to life under Article 21.
    • This expanded the scope of Article 21 and established environmental protection as a constitutional obligation.
  • Expanding the Scope of Article 14: In a judgment on the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard, the Supreme Court expanded Article 14’s scope by linking it with environmental justice, asserting a constitutional “right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change” under Articles 14 and 21.
    • The Court emphasizes that climate change disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, violating their right to equality.
  • Directive Principles of State Policy: The environment-related aspects of the DPSPs provide a foundation for the Supreme Court’s interpretation of environmental rights under Article 21.
    • The court recognized the right to a clean environment as part of Article 21, drawing a connection to the State’s responsibility under Article 48A.
  • Doctrine of Absolute Liability: This holds hazardous industries strictly liable for any environmental damage irrespective of fault or negligence, ensuring polluters bear the cost of remediation.
    • In M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India (1986).
  • Polluter Pays Principle: This principle places the financial burden of pollution prevention and control on the polluter, incentivizing industries to adopt cleaner practices.
    • The Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs. Union of India (1996) case.
  • Public Interest Litigation (PIL) as a Tool for Environmental Protection: The Court has actively encouraged PILs as a means for citizens to raise environmental concerns. This has empowered individuals and NGOs to seek judicial intervention in environmental degradation cases,
    • Narmada Bachao Andolan vs. Union of India (1994) case.
  • Precautionary Principle: advocates for taking preventive measures to avoid environmental harm even in the absence of conclusive scientific evidence.
    • C. Mehta vs. Union of India (1988).
  • Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Mandated: Recognizing the importance of pre-emptive action, the Court has mandated EIA for development projects to assess potential environmental consequences.
    • Himachal Pradesh vs. Ganesh (1996), ensuring environmental considerations are factored into project planning.
  • Sustainable Development: The Court has promoted sustainable development by recognizing its link to environmental protection. In Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs. Union of India (1996), it was noted that sustainable development requires balancing economic growth with environmental conservation.
  • Compensatory Afforestation and Intergenerational Equity: The Court has addressed intergenerational equity by demanding compensatory afforestation for forest land diverted for development projects.

Embedding environmental protection within the constitution, establishes a legal duty for governments to enact and enforce laws that prevent environmental degradation, promote conservation, and facilitate sustainable development. It provides a foundation for environmental justice and empowers individuals and communities to hold governments accountable for environmental stewardship.

‘+1’ Value Addition:

  • The SC has historically acknowledged Article 21 as the heart of the fundamental rights in the Constitution. The SC has said that the right to life is not just mere existence, but that it includes all rights that make it a meaningful and dignified existence for an individual.
  • The first link between environmental quality and the right to life was established in the case of Charan Lal Sahu Etc. vs. Union of India and Others, also known as the Bhopal Case.
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