Global awareness to protect and improve the environment was popularized by the UN conference at Stockholm in 1972. It is woven into the constitutional fabric in India as directive principle for good government and the fundamental rights of the citizens. Legislative and judicial activism as a result energized the growth of environmental laws.
Early Indian forest laws of the British Raj shook the eco-system leading to commercialization and inequitable privatization of common property resources. This was against the interests of the rural and tribal people. The Forest Conservation Act 1980 (FCA) brought a change. For use of forest for non-forest purposes, such as mining, damming and tourism projects prior approval of central government was made essential. Even in this regard executive laziness left the apex court to emerge as a significant player.
The law on wild life has undergone a revamping. It did away with trading in wild animals and forest produce through private channels. It also added more endangered species to the protected category. Wild life administration was made more democratic with the induction of tribal people. The laws on pollution of water and air brought regulatory mechanisms of pollution control boards with coercive powers even to order closure of a polluting industry. The Environment (Protection) Act 1986 has made the central government the guardian of the environment with authority to take all necessary measures. Rules on hazardous industries, micro-organisms and noise pollution have been framed. Similarly notifications on coastal zones and impact assessment have been issued. The central government can delegate its executive powers to its own authorities and to state governments and their agencies.
Polluter-pays principle, public trust doctrine, precautionary approach and sustainable development are part of the legal system. Courts link the fundamental right to a healthy environment into the right-to-life provision in the Constitution. These are remarkable achievements in remedying several ecological maladies such as excessive noise, smoking, uncontrolled operation of tanning industries, unscientific aquaculture farming, indiscriminate mining, and conversion of open space or wet lands for eco-unfriendly uses.
The National Green Tribunal established under NGT Act 2011 is an effective alternative forum to hear appeals against decisions under various environment laws. It has jurisdiction over all civil cases involving ‘a substantial question relating to environment’. It can also enforce any legal right relating to environment.
Formerly, UGC Emeritus Fellow,
Cochin University of Science and Technology.