Expanding Dimensions of Environmental Jurisprudence in India

image description

Expanding Dimensions of Environmental Jurisprudence in India

Various Principles and Important Judicial decisions


                     The landmark case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India has given a new direction for the development of Environment Jurisprudence in India. The Judiciary, by applying a number of principles for the first time in Indian cases, such as,

  • Polluter Pays Principle
  • Public Trust Doctrine
  •  And the Precautionary Principle

has set the road map for the achievement of the principle of "Sustainable Development."

This aforesaid case is  the compilation of four famous cases namely;

  1. Sriram Food fertilizer Industry v. Delhi Administration.[1]
  2. Indian Council for Enviro Legal Action and others v. Union of India,[2]
  3. Vellore citizen Welfare Forum v. Union Of India,[3]
  4. M.C Mehta v. Kamal Nath,[4]

and was filed by our famous environmentalist and Social Worker Mr M.C Mehta through P.I.L. In this case, the Hon'ble Supreme Court by observing the involvement of some Environmental issues which were highly detrimental to the Public interest compiled all the cases and decided and this compilation of cases is known as M.C Mehta V Union Of India.

1. Sriram Food Fertilizer Industry v Delhi Administration[5]

 Brief facts -

             The petitioner in this writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India sought a  direction for the closure of the various units of Shriram Foods & Fertilizers Industries on the ground that they were hazardous to the community.  During the pendency of the petition,  there was the escape of oleum gas from one of the units of  Shriram. The Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board and the Delhi Bar  Association filed applications for the award of compensation to the persons who had suffered harm on account of the escape of oleum gas.

In this case, the contention raised by the Respondent was that,

  • They are not to be considered as a State under Article 12 of the Constitution, therefore Violation of Article 21,[6]  Cannot be charged against them.
  • And Secondly, Article 32,[7] does not provide any power to the Court to grant Compensation.

However, the Hon'ble Supreme Court struck down both the contentions and considered the industry as a State under Article 12 of the Constitution and held that the Court could direct to pay compensation Under Article 32 of the Same for any harm caused.  

The Hon'ble Supreme court also held that;

  1.     An enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that if any harm results to anyone, the enterprise must be held to be under an obligation to provide that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity must be conducted with the highest standards of safety and if any harm results on account of such activity the enterprise must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm irrespective of the fact that the enterprise had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part.
  2. If  the enterprise is permitted to carry  on  an hazardous  or inherently dangerous activity for its  profit, the law must presume that such permission is conditional  on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accident arising on account  of  such  activity as an appropriate  item  of  its overheads. The enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide  warning against potential hazards .
  3. At the same time, with regard to payment of compensation to the people affected the Hon'ble Supreme Court opined that, the  measure of compensation in  such  kind  of cases  must be co-related to the magnitude and  capacity  of the enterprise because such compensation must have a  deterrent effect. The larger and more prosperous the  enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in carrying on of  the  hazardous or inherently dangerous activity  by  the enterprise.   

                                  With regard to the inclusion of Such kind of Industries, which are having sufficient potential to affect the human life at large, under the Article 12[8] the Hon'ble Supreme court discussed the "Jurisprudential aspect of expanding Horizons of Article 12" that ;

                                    "This court has throughout the last few years expanded the horizon of Article 12 primarily to inject respect for human rights and social conscience in corporate structure. the purpose of expansion has not been to destroy the essence of creating corporation but to advance the human rights jurisprudence. The apprehension that including within the ambit of Article 12 and thus subjecting to discipline of Article 21 those private corporations whose activities have the potential of affecting the life and health of the people, would deal a death blow to the policy of encouraging and permitting private entrepreneurial activity is not well-founded. It is through creative interpretation and bold innovation that the Human rights jurisprudence has been developed in India to a remarkable extent and this forward march of human rights movement cannot be allowed to be halted by unfounded apprehension expressed by status quoits ." [9]       


2.   Indian Council for Enviro Legal Action and others v Union of India[10]

                    What happened, in this case, was, a number of chemical industrial plants operating in the Bichiri village, Udaipur District, Rajasthan were found to be operating without permits nor adherence to effluent discharge standard. The plants were producing toxic chemicals including oleum, single super phosphate and highly toxic ‘H’ acid. The Plants discharged toxic effluents emanating from their operation into the surrounding environment thereby polluting the land and water aquifers.

                             In this case, the Hon'ble Supreme court held that the aforesaid Plants are liable for the cost of improving and restoring the environment affected in the Bichiri village, Udaipur District, Rajasthan. The court allowed both the Central Government of India and the villagers to proceed against the plants in the appropriate civil courts to claim damages. The court further ordered the closure of the Plants.

                            In this case, also the Supreme court entertained the application of " Polluters Pays Principle " by virtue of which the Hon'ble Court Directed the said plants and industries to pay compensation and to be closed by the appropriate Government.


3. Vellore citizen Welfare Forum vs Union Of India[11]

                      In this Case, a famous NGO named as Vellore Citizens Forum brought an action to stop Tanners operating within the State of Tamil Nadu from discharging untreated effluent into agricultural fields, waterways, open lands and waterways. It is estimated that nearly 35,000 hectares of agricultural land in Tanner’s belt had become polluted and unfit for cultivation at the time of this action, as a result, a lot of problems and loss were sustained by the denizens of that area.

                         Then the Hon'ble Supreme Court directed the Central Government to establish an authority to deal with the situation created by the tanners. It directed the authority to implement the" Precautionary Principle," and identified the following things namely;

                       1. loss to the ecology/environment 

                       2. Individuals and families who have suffered because of the pollution, and then determine the compensation to reverse the environmental damage and compensate those who have suffered from the pollution. 

                    In this case, also there was an exhaustive reflection of adoption of two important principles by the Supreme Court, that are namely;

  1. Polluters pay Principle
  2. Precautionary Principle. 


4. M.C Mehta v Kamal Nath[12]

              In this case, the State Government granted a lease of riparian forest land to a private company for commercial purpose. The purpose of the lease was to build a motel at the bank of the River Beas. A report published in a national newspaper i.e The Indian express alleged that the motel management interfered with the natural flow of the river in order to divert its course and to save the motel from future floods.

                        By referring which the Supreme Court initiated suo motu action based on the newspaper item because of the facts that , there was a reasonable apprehension of a serious act of environmental degradation which would affect the public interest at large.

                       Then in this particular case for the first time, the Hon'ble Supreme Court adopted the " Public Trust Doctrine " in order to resolve such dispute. The Supreme court also stated that the Public Trust Doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources like air, sea, waters and forests have such great importance to the people as a whole that it would be unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. Besides the Hon'ble court observed that Our Indian legal system, which is based on English common law, includes the public trust doctrine as part of its jurisprudence. The State is the trustee of all-natural resources, which are by nature meant for public use and enjoyment. The public at large is the beneficiary of the seashore, running waters, airs, forests and ecologically fragile lands. The State as a trustee is under a legal duty to protect the natural resources. These resources meant for public use cannot be converted into private ownership. As rivers, forests, minerals and such other resources constitute a nation's natural wealth. These resources are not to be frittered away and exhausted by any one generation. Every generation owes a duty to all succeeding generations to develop and conserve the natural resources of the nation in the best possible way. It is in the interest of mankind. It is in the interest of the nation. Thus, the Public Trust doctrine is a part of the law of the land. The court also ruled that there is no any justifiable reason to rule out the application of the public trust doctrine in all ecosystems in India.

                      Here the Court also adopted and applied the "Polluter pays principle" and directed the developer to pay compensation by way of cost for the restitution of the environment and ecology of the area. And said that there is no difficulty in holding that the Himachal Pradesh government committed a patent breach of public trust by leasing out the ecologically fragile land to be developed.


 From all the aforesaid cases included in the Famous case of  M.C Mehta v. Union of India, one can observe a better reflection of the adoption of all the principles of Sustainable development that are, namely;

  • Precautionary principle
  • Polluter pays Principle
  • And Public Trust Doctrine,

into the Indian Environmental Jurisprudence and its application in a plethora of cases invented a new era of Environmental Jurisprudence in India, which will keep showing direction to all the environmental disputes and broadening the dimension of some provisions of our Fundamental law.

            E.g. It expanded the dimension of Article 12,[13] by including a number of organisations participating in Polluting the environment.[14] Besides, it also expanded the dimensions of Article 21,[15] by including "Right to have a wholesome and healthy environment" under "Right to life."

            In other words, this right to life under Article 21 has been extended to include the right to a healthy environment and the right to livelihood. The third aspect of the right to life is the application of public trust doctrine to protect and preserve the public land.









[1] 1987 SCR(1) 819 , Which is also known as Olium Gas leak case or M.C Mehta v. union of India.

[2] 1996 AIR 1446 , also known as Bichiri Case

[3] AIR 1996 SC 2715

[4] 1997 1 SCC 388

[5] 1987 SCR(1) 819 , Which is also known as Olium Gas leak case or M.C Mehta v. union of India.

[6] The Indian Constitution .

[7] Of the Constitution of India

[8] The constitution of India

[9] 1987 SCR (1) 823 3rd paragraph

[10] 1996 AIR 1446

[11] AIR 1996 SC 2715

[12] 1997 1 SCC 388

[13] The Constitution of India

[14] Sriram Food Fertilizer Industry v Delhi Administration , 1987 SCR(1) 819 , Which is also known as Olium Gas leak case or M.C Meheta v. union of India.

[15] The Constitution Of India