Fundamental rights and the Environment


The Golden Triangle of the Indian Constitution - Article 14, Article 19 and Article 21 - has been invoked time and again for environmental protection. The High Courts and Supreme Court of India have read the right to a wholesome environment as a part of the right to life guaranteed in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

In the Dehradun Quarrying Case, though the orders did not articulate the fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment, the petition was treated as a writ under Article 32, which implied that the court was seeing this right in the light of a fundamental right. The Supreme Court explained the basis of this jurisdiction in the later case of Subhash Kumar v State of Bihar where the court held that the right to life is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution and it includes right of enjoyment of pollution free water, air for full enjoyment of life. and that .if anything endangers or impairs the quality of life, in derogation of laws, a citizen has a right to have a recourse to Article 32 of the Constitution for removing the pollution of water or air which may be detrimental to the quality of life.. This concept has been furthered by the Supreme Court and various High Courts decisions worded differently by concretising the idea of right to a clean and healthy environment as a part of fundamental rights.


The other integral part of right to life is right to livelihood as enumerated in the Olga Tellis Case, which is again a judicial enlargement of the right to life envisaged under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In Olga Tellis the Court looking at the limitation of the Indian State said that to deprive a person of his right to livelihood would mean depriving him of his life. The State may not by affirmative action be compellable to provide adequate means of livelihood or work to the citizens but any person who is deprived of his right to livelihood by law can challenge the deprivation as offending the right to life conferred by Article 21. Many environmentalists think that the right to livelihood could be asserted to prevent environmentally disruptive projects that threaten to uproot tribal people and villagers for depriving their right to livelihood. The recent agitation by the farmers of Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal and Narmada Bachao Andolans (NBA) campaign against the Sardar Sarovar Dam can be understood in this perspective. However, industries see a strict environmental regime at loggerheads with the right to livelihood and clean/healthy environment of the citizens. The argument forwarded by the industry interests can be rebutted on the grounds that right to clean environment and right to livelihood are complementary rather than contradictory. If all industries follow the environmental standards, then the price of products will include all the external costs which would have to be borne by the consumers. Nevertheless, even this alternative can be questioned in a third world country like India where most people are unable to afford costlier products.


Article 14 can be invoked to challenge government sanctions for projects with high environmental impact, where permissions are arbitrarily granted without adequate consideration, for example, of their environmental impacts. Article 19(1) (g) provides that all citizens shall have the right to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business but with reasonable restrictions which may be placed in the interest of the general public as provided within section 19 sub clause (6), which might include total prohibition. Accordingly, in cases involving polluting industrial units, the courts face the task of balancing the environmental imperative with the right to carry on any occupation/trade or business.