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Environment Legislation in India | Law Optional Notes for UPSC PDF Download


Environmental law holds a central position within any government agency, encompassing a set of regulations concerning water and air quality, alongside various other facets of the environment. The effectiveness of these laws primarily hinges on their enforcement. Legislation serves as a valuable means to instill environmental responsibility in the public, reinforcing principles of environmental conservation and concentrating on the management of specific natural resources like minerals, forests, and fisheries in the context of India's environmental law.

  • In India, environmental law directly mirrors the tenets of the country's constitution. The imperative to safeguard and preserve the environment while promoting the sustainable utilization of natural resources is enshrined in India's constitutional framework and its international commitments.
  • Notwithstanding numerous endeavors to establish sustainability through environmental law, India's burgeoning economy still grapples with environmental concerns. Furthermore, Indian regulators are in the process of revising their existing environmental regulations and statutes, which could result in more rigorous corporate requirements. 
  • Nonetheless, these efforts will fall short without societal engagement. Public awareness plays a pivotal role in shaping these policies, necessitating a collaborative approach to address these substantial challenges. Both government and non-government organizations must collaborate to address environmental issues, backed by more stringent environmental legislation.

What is environmental legislation 

Environmental legislation is a collection of laws and regulations related to water quality, air quality, endangered wildlife, and several other environmental factors. Environmental legislation covers many laws and regulations, but they all work towards a common goal of regulating human-nature interactions to reduce threats to the environment and improve public health.
As we can imagine, environmental legislation is broad, mainly because the natural environment encompasses several aspects. All this means that environmental law must take into account everything from the air we breathe, to the natural resources we depend on, to the flora and fauna that share this world with us. After so much interconnection with each other, it becomes important for us to understand environmental legislation because we all share the same resources.

Climate change in India  

If we take the example of India, then it is one of the countries most affected by climate change. About half of India’s population depends on agriculture or other climate-sensitive sectors. About 12% of India is prone to floods and 16% to droughts. India is now the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. 

  • From 1990 to 2009, India’s annual emissions nearly tripled, from less than 600 tons to more than 1,700 tons. From 2008 to 2035, India’s annual carbon emissions are expected to increase nearly 2.5 times. Net greenhouse gas emissions from India’s land use, change, and forestry in 2007 was 1,727.71 million tons of carbon dioxide. 
  • While the energy sector accounts for 8% of net CO2 emissions, the industrial sector, agriculture, and waste sectors account for 22%, 17%, and 3% of net CO2 emissions, respectively. As a result, climate change and energy are now the focus of local, state, and national concerns around the world. 
  • While India has previously emphasised that it is a developing country with historically low per capita emissions rates and is not responsible for past greenhouse gas emissions, India has now become a key player in international negotiations. 
  • It has begun implementing a diverse set of laws, improving energy efficiency, developing clean energy and preparing for the impacts of climate change nationally and individually.
  • On the other hand, India is considered to be a land of spirituality and philosophy and is also the land of rivers as it has 14 major rivers, 44 medium rivers, and 55 minor rivers. From the Ganges in the north to Kaveri in the south, the waterways are considered sacred by most devout Hindu pilgrims, as religious texts say the Ganges can purify the sins of the bathers.
  • It is said that the sight of Narmada is enough to purify the waters. However, India’s rivers are increasingly becoming dumping grounds for domestic, industrial, and agricultural waste. A polluted environment threatens human existence on earth, thereby endangering human beings. 
  • A country’s borders cannot limit these environmental issues to a specific country or region, but their impact is global. This massive environmental degradation has drawn global attention to protecting and preserving the earth’s environment.
  • Therefore, efforts are being made to inculcate environmental awareness among the masses. Education makes people more aware of the environment and environmental issues. Existing policies, laws, precedents, regulations, norms, decisions, etc., already constitute a large and complicated apparatus of documents and powers conferred on specific institutions or persons. 
  • However, the current laws also seem unable to solve the problem and that more may be needed, the question inevitably arises as to how much resources, wealth, energy, and intelligence India should devote to this regulation and control task.

Need for Environment Legislation

The genesis of various national legislations lies in environmental issues. There should be effective legislation to protect the environment; otherwise, the growing population will create havoc and will destroy the environment. 

  • Another important aspect is the enforcement of these laws. We must vigorously and effectively enforce the law to protect our environment from further degradation and pollution. Pollution is an important factor, ignoring political territory and legislative jurisdiction. Therefore, environmental problems are global in nature. To prevent such problems, it is not only necessary to enact environmental laws at the national level but also the international level.
  • While modern society is increasingly concerned about global environmental issues, developing countries also have their complex, severe, and rapidly growing pollution problems. The potent combination of industrialization development and mass consumption trends is exacerbated by foreign companies operating with little regard for the impact on the local environment. 
  • Pollution is not just a health issue; it is a broader social issue, as pollution has the potential to destroy families and communities. Pollution issues are also closely related to the mode of development in developing countries. Nonetheless, many developing countries either do not have pollution control policies or do not have sufficient enforcement structures to ensure that policies are effective.
  • The combination of rapid industrial development (especially petrochemical and heavy industry), strong economic growth, and unprecedented urban expansion have substantially increased pollutant emissions.

Purpose of environment Legislation

The importance of environmental legislation is that environmental protection cannot be achieved without appropriate regulations and laws. Raising environmental awareness and promoting environmental education are the means by which people do not destroy the environment but protect it for the future. However, it is the legislation that ensures that environmental protection is actually implemented in everyday life. 

  • Legislation requires businesses, companies, the public, industries, etc., to protect the environment and prevent environmental degradation. It provides severe penalties for those who do not abide by the laws and rules. Ultimately, this type of enforcement ensures that ideas and plans are turned into practical efforts to protect the environment. 
  • At the international level, several environmental treaties and conventions attempt to address environmental issues. With the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972), the United Nations began to emphasize environmental aspects. 
  • Since then, several nations have adopted seventy international treaties, declarations, charters, agreements, and so on. These efforts were made to safeguard the environment and balance human development with environmental conservation.

At the national level, some remarkable efforts have been made to improve and protect the environment by incorporating Amendments into the Indian Constitution. Our Constitution initially did not directly provide for the protection of the natural environment. 

  • However, following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, the Indian Constitution was amended to include environmental protection as a constitutional mandate. The 42nd Amendment clause (g) of Article 51A of the Constitution of India states that protecting and improving the natural environment is a fundamental duty. 
  • Every citizen of India has a duty to protect and improve the natural environment, including lakes, forests, wildlife, and rivers, and to be sympathetic to living things. A policy or directive is empowering the state as one of the Directive Principles of State Policy sets out to protect and improve the environment. 
  • Article 48A stipulates: The state strives to protect and improve the environment and secure the country’s forests and wild animals. The Ministry of Environment was established in India in 1980 to ensure a healthy environment in the country. 
  • Later, this became the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1985. The Ministry has overall responsibility for the management and enforcement of environmental legislation and policies. Constitutional provisions are backed by a series of laws – Acts and Rules. Most of our environmental laws are Acts of Parliament or State Legislatures. 
  • These Acts generally give regulators the power to make regulations to enforce them. The Environmental Protection Act (EPA) of 1986 came into effect shortly after the Bhopal Gas tragedy and is considered protective legislation because it filled many gaps in existing legislation.
  • Since then, a significant number of environmental law has been enacted to deal with specific environmental issues. In Delhi, for example, CNG was recently mandated for public transport vehicles. This reduces air pollution in Delhi.

Environment laws in India

There are so many environmental laws in force in India, and some are as follows:

The Public Liability Insurance Act and Rules 1991 and Amendment, 1992 

The Public Liability Insurance Act and Rules, 1991 and Amendment, 1992 were introduced to provide public liability insurance to persons in accidents impacted unintentionally while taking care of any perilous substance.

The National Environmental Tribunal Act, 1995, Amendment, 2010 

The Act seeks to provide compensation for damages to persons, property damage, and environmental damages caused by activities involving hazardous substances. The three main goals are:

  • Efficiently and expeditiously handle cases related to environmental protection and protection of forests and other natural resources. All previously pending cases are also being heard by the Tribunal.
  • It aims to enforce all legal rights related to the environment. 
  • It also accounts for providing compensation and relief to the people who are affected by the damage.

The salient features of the Amendment are as follows:

  • The Amendment provides every citizen of India the same opportunity to apply to the National Green Court. 
  • Ensure that the principles of sustainable development, the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle, and intergenerational equity are taken into account by courts in hearing appeals and delivering judgments.

The National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997

The National Environmental Appellate Authority Act, 1997 was created to hear appeals related to restrictions of areas in which classes of industry, etc., are prescribed certain safeguards under the Environmental Protection Act. 

The Biomedical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998

Biomedical waste refers to any waste, including the categories listed in the Rules, generated during the diagnosis, treatment, or immunisation of humans or animals, related research activities, or the production or testing of biological waste. The Biomedical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998 simplify the process of handling hospital waste, such as a disposal, collection, and sorting.

The Environment (Siting for Industrial Projects) Rules, 1999

The Environment (Siting for Industrial Projects) Rules, 1999 set out detailed provisions on the areas to be avoided for the establishment of industrial plants, the precautions to be taken in site selection, and the environmental protection aspects to be considered while implementing industrial development projects.

The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000

These Rules apply to each municipal authority. They must ensure that solid waste generated by the city/municipality is handled in accordance with rules and regulations for collection, separation, storage, transportation, processing, and disposal.

The Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules, 2001

The Central Government considers battery waste management more important than battery production, so the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has notified the final rule regulating the collection and recycling of all used lead-acid batteries in India, called The Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules, 2001, on 16 May 2001. The Act applies to battery management under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and extends throughout India. As the issue of battery waste disposal has become a global issue, it is only the right step for India to prevent it from damaging our air, water, or soil.

The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) (Amendment) Rules, 2010

These rules stipulate the necessary conditions to reduce noise pollution and allow the use of loudspeakers or public address systems during cultural or religious celebrations at night (between 10:00 p.m. and midnight).
Here are the key features of the Amendment:

  • Loudspeakers, sound systems, or amplifiers should not be used at night except in enclosed spaces such as auditoriums, meeting rooms, community halls, banquet halls, etc., or during public emergencies.
  • Noise levels at public spaces where loudspeakers or public address systems are being used should not exceed 10 dB or 75 dB of the area’s ambient noise standard, whichever is less.
  • No horn should be used in the residential area except during an emergency.
  • Sound emitting construction equipment will not be used at night.

The Air (prevention and control of pollution) Act, 1981 

The Act aims to control and prevent air pollution in India, and some of its main objectives are:

  • Prevent, control, and reduce air pollution.
  • To provide for the establishment of boards to enforce the law at the federal and state levels. Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) were given the responsibility.

It is stipulated that air pollution sources such as internal combustion engines, industries, vehicles, and power plants shall not contain particulate matter, lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or other toxic substances exceeding specified limits. It empowers state governments to designate air pollution areas.

Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) 

The Act recognizes and grants the forest rights and occupation in forest lands to Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDSTs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) who have lived in such forests for generations. The Act is chaired by the Department of Tribal Affairs. The law also stipulates the responsibilities and powers for the sustainable use of FDST and OTFD, the protection of biodiversity, and the maintenance of ecological balance.
It strengthens forest protection systems while ensuring livelihoods and food security for FDST and OTFD. It aims to correct the colonial injustice of the FDST and OTFD, which are critical to the survival and sustainability of forest ecosystems. The law identifies four types of rights:

  • Title rights: It gives the FDST and OTFD the right to own land cultivated by tribes or forest dwellers up to a maximum area of 4 hectares. Ownership only applies to the land cultivated by the relevant family and does not grant new land.
  • Right to use: Dweller rights extend to the extraction of smaller forest products, pastures, pasture paths, etc.
  • Forest management rights: It includes the right to protect, regenerate, conserve or manage all community forest resources that traditionally protect them and preserve them for sustainable use.
  • Relief and development rights: Rehabilitation in case of illegal eviction or relocation and essential amenities are subject to restrictions for forest protection.

The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980

Forests are an essential resource endowed by nature to human beings. Therefore, protecting the forest ecosystem is the responsibility of every citizen. But rapid deforestation disrupts the cycle of nature itself. Therefore, it is necessary to enact laws to protect forests.
The main objective of the Act is to protect forests and their flora, fauna, and other diverse ecological components while preserving the integrity and territory of the forests. Furthermore, forest land is prevented from being converted for agricultural, grazing, or other commercial uses and intentions.

The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 

  • The Act protects the nation’s wildlife, bird and plant species to ensure environmental safety. Among other things, the law imposes restrictions on hunting many animal species. The law was last amended in 2006. An Amendment was submitted to the Rajya Sabha in 2013 and referred to the Standing Committee but was withdrawn in 2015. 
  • In India, the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 safeguards and protects wild animals. The law is a product of a time when environmental jurisprudence is rapidly developing in India and deserves due credit for judicial activism. The enactment of this law acknowledges that all previous laws, such as the Wild Birds and Animals Protection Act of 1912 were inadequate. The current law is comprehensive and covers mostly all the gaps that existed in the previous law.
  • However, there are still substantial gaps in the applicable law. There is a vacuum between theoretical laws and practical implementation. In addition, the aim of the law is diluted by bureaucratic interference.

The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974

  • The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 was enacted to prevent and control water pollution and maintain or restore water health in the country. The law was amended in 1988. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act was enacted in 1977 to provide for the levy of taxes on water used by persons engaged in certain types of industrial activities. Under the Act, it was levied to augment the resources of the Central and State Commissions to prevent and control water pollution. The law was last amended in 2003.
  • The purpose of enacting the Water Act is to prevent and control water pollution in India. Pollution means the contamination of water, or the alteration of the physical, chemical, or biological properties of water, or the discharge of sewage or commercial sewage or other liquids, gases, and solids (whether directly or indirectly) into the water, or as apposite to cause a nuisance or harmful to public health or safety or domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural or other lawful uses or the life and health of an animal or plant or aquatic tissue.
  • Water pollution is a big problem in India, and its control and prevention are other big problems. So far, we have not been able to raise awareness of the importance of water conservation. The law, of course, provides for various authorities that will work to prevent this; the law provides various complaints procedures and the powers of various agencies. However, more work needs to be done to make the law more comprehensive, involve more local people, and make it a strong deterrent with heavier penalties. Most importantly, more emphasis should be placed on the enforcement aspect, as pollution can not only be controlled through legislation but also must be adequately enforced.

The Ozone-Depleting Substances (Regulation And Control) Rules, 2000 

The Ozone-Depleting Substances (Regulation And Control) Rules, 2000 sets deadlines for phasing out various ozone-depleting substances (ODS) and regulating the production, commercial import, and export of products containing ODS. These regulations prohibit the use of ODS and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform, except for metered-dose inhalers and other medical uses.

Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2018

It was notified on the recommendation of the Shailesh Nayak Committee. This regulation promotes sustainable development and also focuses on natural disasters such as sea-level rise due to global warming and promotes sustainable development. It also protects and preserves biodiversity while ensuring the livelihoods of local communities, including fishermen.
Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) is divided into four regulatory zones:

  • CRZ I – Ecologically sensitive areas such as mangroves, salt marshes, coral reefs, turtle nesting sites, and inter-tidal zones.
  • CRZ II- Areas close to the shoreline and which have evolved. 
  • CRZ III- Coastal which are not substantially built up, comprising rural coastal areas. 
  • CRZ IV- Water area via Low Tide Line to the limit of provincial waters of India.

The Energy Conservation Act, 2001

The Energy Conservation Act, 2001 was ratified as a step toward revamping energy efficiency and reducing waste. It deals with energy consumption standards for equipment and appliances. Furthermore, it deals explicitly with the matter of energy consumption norms and other necessary standards for consumers. 

  • The growing population of India and the consequent increase in energy consumption have led to the depletion of natural resources, which once disappeared cannot be reborn in the same state. To challenge this reality, the Indian Government in 2001 considered enacting the Energy Conservation Act to regulate energy consumption and conservation in India. 
  • The law authorizes the Central Government to issue energy-saving certificates to consumers whose energy consumption is lower than the prescribed norms and standards. Consumers whose energy consumption exceeds the prescribed norms and standards shall be entitled to purchase the energy savings certificate to meet the prescribed norms and standards. 
  • The Act requires large energy consumers to comply with energy consumption standards, new buildings to comply with Energy Conservation Building Code, and equipment to meet energy performance standards and display energy consumption labels.
  • It suggests energy conservation building codes for commercial buildings. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) is a statutory body set up under the Act.
  • The Government of India established the Bureau of Energy Efficiency on 1st March 2002, in accordance with the provisions of the 2001 Energy Conservation Law. The mandate of the Office of Energy Efficiency is to assist in the development of policies and strategies, focusing on self-regulation and market principles within the general framework of the Energy Conservation Act, 2001, with the primary objective of reducing the energy intensity of the Indian economy.
  • The mission of BEE is to develop policies and strategies emphasising self-regulation and market principles within the general framework of the Energy Conservation Act, 2001, with the primary purpose of promoting energy-saving measures, thereby reducing the unit energy intensity (i.e., energy consumption) of products in the Indian economy/ services, practices and procedures).

The Biological Diversity Act, 2002

  • The Biological Diversity Act, 2002 was enacted to give effect to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to check biopiracy and protect biological diversity and local growers with the help of a three-tier structure made by central and state boards and local committees, and to set up State Biodiversity Boards (SBBS), Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCS), and National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).
  • The Act is generally designed to protect biodiversity, to protect and control the appropriate use of its components, and to ensure equitable distribution of the benefits of such use. The stated goals of the law are to protect traditional knowledge, prevent biopiracy, prohibit people from applying for patents without government permission, and more. 
  • Chapter IX of this Act describes various aspects of biodiversity conservation objectives, in particular Sections 36, 37 and 38 which relate to the development of national plans and programmes for the conservation of biodiversity, state notification and conservation of biological diversity areas, and with the authority of the central government to notify species that are dangerously endangered, on the verge of extinction, endangered species, prohibit collection, etc. While the sustainable use of its components suggests regulation of the use of natural resources rather than consumption. 
  • Article 21 of the Act provides for benefit sharing. It aims to ensure that the benefits derived from the available biological resources, their by-products, knowledge and related practices are equitably shared between the person applying for acquiring such benefits and the local bodies involved.

The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010

The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 was established to provide judicial and administrative remedies for victims of pollution and other environmental damage. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was established in 2010, which is a specialised judicial body with expertise dedicated to adjudicating environmental cases in the country. 

  • Given that most environmental cases involve multidisciplinary issues and are best dealt with in dedicated forums, the Tribunal was established on the advice of the Supreme Court, Law Commission and India’s international law obligations to formulate and effectively implement national environmental laws. 
  • The task of the Tribunal is to find effective and prompt remedies in cases relating to environmental protection, the protection of forests and other natural resources, and the enforcement of all environmental legal claims. The Tribunal’s order is binding and has the power to provide relief to those affected in the form of compensation and damages.
  • It also agrees with Article 21 of the Constitution, which is the right of citizens to a healthy environment. The National Green Tribunal must resolve cases brought to it within six months of its appointment. NGT is primarily responsible for matters related to major environmental issues.
  • But advantageously, because of the National Green Tribunals, which encourages lawyers to specialize in environmental law, the Tribunal is seen as an important aspect of achieving justice in environmental matters. A time will come when our environment will receive the greatest attention from the laws pertaining to it.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972

  • The Act provides for the protection of wild animals, plants, and birds. It straddles the whole of India. It has six schedules that give different levels of protection: 
  • Schedule I and part II provide absolute protection, and offences under these will be subject to the highest penalties. Species listed in Schedule III and IV are also protected but with much lower penalties. 
  • Animals that come under Schedule V, such as common crows, fruit bats, mice, and rats, are legally considered pests and can be hunted freely. 
  • The endemic plants listed in Schedule VI shall not be cultivated.

The Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021 

The Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021 was introduced in Lok Sabha by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The Bill aims to increase the number of species protected under the law and implement the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

Some of the key areas the Bill focuses on:

  • Standing Committees of State Boards of Wildlife: This Bill proposes the creation of a Standing Committees of State Boards of Wildlife. These Committees will operate like the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). It can make decisions about wildlife management and project licensing without having to refer most projects to NBWL.
  • Rationalisation of Schedules for Wildlife: The Bill simplifies Schedules for Wildlife under the Act, bringing it down from 6 to 4 major Schedules.
  • Wildlife Management Plans: The Bill states that the Wildlife Management Plans, which are prepared for national parks across the country, are now part of the Wildlife Act. The Chief Wildlife Warden must also approve them of the state. This ensures stricter protection of these protected areas. Previously, the plans were approved by executive order.

Landmark cases on environment legislation in India

J.C. Galstaun v. Dunia Lal Seal (1905)

  • This is the first environmental pollution incident reported in India. In this case, the plaintiff sued the defendant’s adjacent factory for discharging waste liquid from its manufacturing process into a municipal drain that passed through the plaintiff’s garden. He claimed that the liquid had an unpleasant smell and was harmful to the health of nearby residents, especially his own, and secondly, it damaged his health, comfort, and the market value of his garden property. 
  • The defendant admitted to foul-smelling his liquid waste but denied that it was harmful or would damage the plaintiff’s property. He said his factory was licensed by the government and produced legally. The judgment was later appealed to the Calcutta High Court.
  • The High Court rejected the above argument and came to the conclusion that the defendant is accountable for such harm and had no such right to discharge any kind of liquid into the municipal drain. Due to such actions, the damage has actually been caused to the plaintiff. Therefore, he is entitled to substantial damages. 

Rural Litigation And Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of U.P. & Ors. (1985)

  • In the case of Rural Litigation And Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of U.P. & Ors. (1985), an NGO acting as the plaintiff wrote a letter to the Supreme Court, raising concerns about the destructive impact of illegal limestone mining in the Mussoorie-Dehradun area on the fragile local ecosystem. The Court treated this letter as a formal writ petition and conducted hearings involving the concerned parties.
  • The Court issued a comprehensive order that outlined various directives, with a promise to provide the specific reasons for these directives in subsequent judgments. The Court acknowledged the importance of industrial development for the economic growth of the country. However, it emphasized that when people pursue industrial growth through unregulated and reckless mining operations, the consequences can include property damage, loss of human lives, disruption of essential infrastructure like water supply, and the creation of ecological imbalances. This, in turn, could lead to a situation where there is no genuine economic progress and prosperity.
  • The Court highlighted the need to strike an appropriate balance between industrial development and environmental preservation. It stressed that authorities responsible for granting mining leases must take into account all these factors and put in place adequate safeguards to prevent these adverse outcomes.

M.C. Mehta & Another vs. Union of India & Others & Shriram Foods & Fertilizer Industries & Another v. Union of India & Others (1987)

  • M.C. Mehta filed a writ petition invoking Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution, seeking the shutdown of Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industries due to its production of hazardous materials and its location in the densely populated Kirti Nagar area. While the petition was under consideration, there was a release of oleum gas from one of the factory units, resulting in the loss of many lives and the adverse health effects on several others. This incident occurred a few months before the Environment (Protection) Act was enacted and played a significant role in the formulation of this impactful law.
  • In the court's judgment, Chief Justice Bhagwati acknowledged the inherent dangers associated with chemical industries but emphasized that these industries, though perilous, are essential and cannot be eliminated from the country. They contribute significantly to the improvement of the quality of life. For instance, in the case at hand, these factories supplied chlorine gas to the Delhi Water Company, ensuring access to clean drinking water. These industries play a vital role in the economic growth of the nation. This case stands as a landmark verdict, as it marked the first instance in Indian legal history where a company was held liable for damages. The Supreme Court, in its decision, defended the environment and public rights by considering a multitude of legal, social, and economic factors.

M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1997)

  • The Taj Mahal case, commonly known as the Taj Trapezium case, was fought by M.C. Mehta and the Union of India. In 1984, Mehta visited the Taj Mahal and noticed that the white marble of the Taj Mahal was turning yellow. To find out, he filed a petition in the Supreme Court. The petitioner stated that pollution is the main cause of the Taj Mahal’s white marble turning yellow. Emissions of harmful gases such as sulfur dioxide and oxygen become acid rain. The rain damaged the monument and turned the marble yellow. Therefore, the petitioner requested the protection of the monument. The Supreme Court found that, in addition to chemicals, socioeconomic factors also affected the mining of the Taj Mahal. People living in trapeze zones are at risk of air pollution. Court ordered that 292 industries operate on safer fuels like propane instead of coke/coal; otherwise, they would have to relocate.
  • The Gas Authority of India Limited was in charge of applications of gas. The Court also granted certain fundamental rights to industry workers and demanded payment of their wages during relocation.

M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1988)

  • In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1988), a writ petition had been filed in the Supreme Court to prevent leather tanneries from dumping household and industrial waste in the river Ganga. He asked the court to stop sewage discharge into the river until a certain treatment plan has been incorporated to curb water pollution.
  • The Court held that polluted water can cause various water-borne diseases and is extremely harmful to the public. As for whose responsibility, the Court ruled that it was the industry’s responsibility to ensure the waste was properly handled and subsequently released. Mahapalika was also held accountable for failing to perform its duties and for failing to act to prevent water pollution, according to the Court. It ordered Mahapalika to take immediate action in this regard.
  • The Court also ordered the federal government to make publications freely available to the general public to raise awareness of environmental issues. It went on to say that the decision will apply to all Mahaparikas who have jurisdiction over the Ganga. 
  • The decision is still considered one of the most important in our country’s environmental law. The decision involves some new scenarios and interpretations of legislation and fundamental rights.

Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar (1991) 

  • In the case of Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar (1991), petitioners had filed a public interest lawsuit against two steel companies, alleging that they dumped plant waste into the nearby Bokaro River, posing a health risk to the public. The petitioner also claimed that the State Environmental Protection Agency did not take appropriate measures to prevent such pollution. As part of their lawsuit, they asked the Court to bring legal action against the company under the Water (Pollution Prevention and Control) Act 1974 and sought permission to self-assess waste in the form of sludge and manure collected as interim relief. The State Pollution and Control Board claimed that it adequately monitored the quality of sewage entering the river; the defendant companies claimed they followed the Board’s instructions concerning the prevention of pollution.
  • The Court found that the Board had taken effective steps to prevent the waste discharge from the factories into the river and dismissed the lawsuit. In addition, it has been determined that the petition does not qualify as a public interest lawsuit because of the petitioner’s interest in obtaining larger quantities of waste in the form of slurry from one of the defendant companies from which he began to purchase slurry several years prior to the petition.

M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath & Ors. (1996)

  • In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath & Ors. (1996), the issue started when the Indian Express published an article reporting that a private company- Span Motels Private Ltd., had launched a project called Span Club. The article caught the attention of the Supreme Court. The company owner had direct contact with the family of former Minister of Environment and Forests, Kamal Nath. By the time Kamal Nath was a minister in 1994, Span Motels had occupied 27.12 acres of land, including forest land. The motel used bulldozers to change the course of the river Beas and divert the river’s flow. The river was diverted to protect the motel from future flooding. The question raised was whether the construction activities carried out by the motel company were reasonable. 
  • However, the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s forest lands leased to the motel were on the banks of river Beas. The area is ecologically fragile and should not be turned into private property. This case applies the principle of public trust, which stipulates that the public cannot use rivers, coasts, forests, air, and other properties. The motel was ordered to pay damages and erect a wall no more than 4 metres apart. The Court also banned the motel from discharging untreated effluent into the river and asked the HP Pollution Commission to keep a check on it.

Samir Mehta v. Union of India (2017) 

  • In the case of Samir Mehta v. Union of India (2017), an environmentalist filed a claim for damages from the sinking of a ship named M.V. Rak, carrying large quantities of coal, fuel oil, and diesel. When the ship sank on Mumbai’s southern coast, a thick layer of oil formed on the sea surface, causing major damage to mangroves and marine ecosystems. 
  • The Court ruled that the sinking of the ship was due to the negligence of the defendants and ordered defendants number 5, 7, and 11 to pay Rs 100 crores to the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India (GOI), which is till now one of the largest sums paid by a private entity for environmental damage caused. 
  • It remains the largest compensation payment to the government by a private entity.

A global perspective on environment laws

United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 1972 

The United Nations Conference on the Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, was the first world conference to focus on environmental issues. Participants adopted many principles for sound environmental management, including the Stockholm Declaration and the Action Plan for the Human Environment, as well as various resolutions. The Stockholm Declaration, containing 26 principles, brought environmental issues to the forefront of international attention, marking the beginning of a dialogue between developed and developing countries about the links between economic growth, air, water, and ocean pollution, and the well-being of people across the world.

World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, 1980

The World Conservation Strategy, 1980 was the first international document on the conservation of biological resources developed with the participation of governments, NGOs, and other experts. The Report argues that for the development of sustainability, it should support rather than hinder conservation. Its underlying principles are the conservation of ecological processes and life support systems, the conservation of genetic diversity, and the sustainable use of species and ecosystems, and are aimed at political decision-makers, conservationists, and development practitioners. It highlights priority conservation issues and ways to address them to achieve this strategic objective.

Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, 1987

The Brundtland Report stated that serious global environmental problems are mainly caused by extreme poverty in the South and unsustainable consumption and production patterns in the North. It called for a strategy that integrates development and the environment. The main focus of the report is on sustainable development. It defines sustainable development as meeting the present’s needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs. In 1989, the report was debated at the United Nations General Assembly, which decided to organize a United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), The Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, 1992

The Rio de Janeiro conference emphasizes how different social, economic, and environmental factors are interdependent and co-evolving and how success in one sector requires actions in other sectors to be sustained over the period. The main goal of the Rio Earth Summit is to develop a broad agenda and a new blueprint for international action on environment and development issues that would help cicerone international cooperation and development policy in the 21st century.

Earth Summit +5, United Nations General Assembly, New York, 1997

The Commission Sustainable Development (CSD) was established to monitor and report on the implementation of the Earth Summit Agreement and agreed to a five-year review of Earth Summit progress at the 1997 UN special session. This special session of the UN General Assembly assessed the responses of countries, international organizations, and sectors of civil society to the Earth Summit challenge.

World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, 2002

The World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002, adopted a Political Declaration and Implementation Plan that contained provisions for various activities and measures to achieve development that respects the environment. The Summit was attended by more than 100 heads of state and government, as well as tens of thousands of government representatives and NGOs. After several days of deliberation, decisions were made on issues such as water, energy, sanitation, agriculture, and biodiversity. 


In India, the disquiet for environmental protection has not only risen to become the country’s fundamental law but is also linked to the human rights policy, and it is now widely believed that the basic human right of everyone is to live in a pollution-free environment. A friendly environment is full of human dignity. It is time for the public, the public institutions, states, and Central Government to recognize the damage our development process is doing to the environment. Strict enforcement is also required. Laws are a powerful medium for enforcing citizens to observe cleanliness and thus fight pollution. Environmental protection laws in India need to be repositioned in a modern context.
However, it is important to understand that such enactment is not enough until a positive attitude on the part of everyone in society will be seen.

The document Environment Legislation in India | Law Optional Notes for UPSC is a part of the UPSC Course Law Optional Notes for UPSC.
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FAQs on Environment Legislation in India - Law Optional Notes for UPSC

1. What is environmental legislation?
Ans. Environmental legislation refers to a set of laws and regulations that are designed to protect the environment and natural resources. These laws aim to regulate activities that may have a negative impact on the environment, such as pollution, deforestation, and wildlife conservation.
2. What is climate change in India?
Ans. Climate change in India refers to the long-term shifts in temperature, precipitation patterns, and other weather conditions that are occurring due to human activities and natural factors. It has led to various impacts in the country, including rising temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and sea-level rise.
3. Why is there a need for environment legislation?
Ans. The need for environment legislation arises from the recognition that human activities have a significant impact on the environment and can lead to degradation of natural resources, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. Environmental legislation helps in regulating and controlling these activities to ensure the sustainable use of resources and protection of the environment for present and future generations.
4. What is the purpose of environment legislation?
Ans. The purpose of environment legislation is to provide a legal framework for the protection and conservation of the environment. It aims to prevent pollution, promote sustainable development, conserve natural resources, protect wildlife and ecosystems, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Environment legislation also helps in promoting environmental awareness and ensuring compliance with environmental standards.
5. What are some landmark cases on environment legislation in India?
Ans. Two landmark cases on environment legislation in India are: - Rural Litigation And Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of U.P. & Ors. (1985): This case resulted in the closure of several limestone quarries in the Mussoorie hills to protect the environment and prevent ecological degradation. - M.C. Mehta & Another vs. Union of India & Others & Shriram Foods & Fertilizer Industries & Another v. Union of India & Others (1987): These cases led to the closure of polluting industries in Delhi and the implementation of various measures to control air and water pollution in the city.
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