When we see the word “sustainable”, nostalgia strikes. A seventh-grader is seated in his class full of quiet students, religiously attending the social science lecture. Some are waiting for the bell to ring, while some are looking outside the window, not realizing that in every minute of that class, activity is being carried out around the world which is going to result in the depletion of our environment. Many laws were enacted to make life possible and to raise public awareness of the issues. They proved to be effective. We have to understand that development is an essential part of life, and so is the environment, but in the furtherance of one, we cannot ignore the other. Balance plays a very important role here. In the Mahabharata, in the Bhishma Parva, refers to the earth as an “ever-yielding cow” provided its resources are developed and managed with balance and control: “if the earth is well looked after, it becomes the father, mother, child, firmament, and heaven of all creatures.” We celebrate Earth Day (22 April), Environment Day (5 June), and many more, but we need to use that enthusiasm, energy, and awareness in order to protect the earth and environment and actually create an impact.
What is a Sustainable Environment and Way of Life?
Sustainable living is a practical concept focused on reducing personal and societal environmental impact by maximizing adjustments that mitigate climate change and other negative environmental concerns. In a nutshell, sustainable living is a strategy for reducing one’s “carbon footprint.” That is, by living sustainably, one uses the least amount of the earth’s resources possible while also attempting to reduce the environmental damage caused by their existence.
The environment is defined in section 2(a) of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. “Environment” includes water, air, and land and the inter-relationship that exists among and between water, air, and land and human beings, other living creatures, plants, micro-organisms, and property. It is important to mention that in the case-law of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs. State of UP, 1985, which is also known as the Dehradun Mussoorie Hills Quarrying Case, a petition was filed by rural litigation and entitlement Kendra in the Supreme Court of India regarding the unauthorized limestone quarries in the hills of Mussoorie. The Supreme Court observed that quarrying of limestone causes soil erosion, which degrades the environment, and this case law became the very first one where the term “sustainable development” was introduced. Natural resources should be used with the utmost care and we should keep in mind that they don’t exhaust in one generation only. Sustainable development is different from a sustainable environment. In sustainable development, we try to create a balance between urbanization and less exploitation of the environment, whereas a sustainable environment is what the end result is that we have been trying to achieve all this time.
It’s not new that environmental problems have been dealt with recently or have come to light in the 20th century only. In ancient India, traces can be found in Indian history about environmental protection or the concerns of people in general. People used to worship the gods of the respective animals, plants, and trees at that time, and stringent punishment was given to those who cut trees. Planting trees and taking care of animals were considered to be practices that could open the gates of heaven. We can trace these today as well, as many gods and goddesses have animals and plants associated with them.
In Medieval history, muhatisabs were appointed to take care of pollution and to see that any kind of dirt, garbage, or nuisance was not created in the markets, roads, and neighborhoods. The Mughals gave India amazing gardens, which were a source of pleasure in the 20th century, like the Mughal Gardens at Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi.
Then came the post-independence era, which brought with it a lot of changes with changing times. In India and all over the world, various measures have been taken in order to protect our environment, as this has been a period of urbanization, globalization, and technology.
Measures to Protect the Environment in the Indian Constitution
Since the 1970s till date, a lot of provisions have been added and judgments have been passed in order to protect the environment and to stop the practices that are degrading it.
In Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the right to an environment free of the danger of disease and infection is mentioned. The right to a healthy environment is an important attribute of the right to live with human dignity. In the case-law of Damodar Rao vs. S.O Municipal Corporation, 1987, the Supreme Court of India held that polluting the environment is a violation of one’s right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In the year 1991, a PIL was filed against two companies for their actions of dumping factory waste into the river water, which is used by the people living there, and the action caused serious health issues. The apex court, in the case of Subash Kumar vs. the State of Bihar, held that the right to get pollution-free water and the air is a fundamental right too, guaranteed under article 21 of the Indian Constitution. A similar judgment was passed in Municipal Council, Ratlam vs Shri Vardhichand & Ors, in which it was held that a pollution-free environment is an integral part of article 21. Similarly, many more judgments have been passed in congruence with article 21. Like in 2000, the supreme court of India in MC Mehta vs. Kamalnath & Ors., said that damages would be provided not only to compensate for the environmental damage but also for the victims who suffered. Article 51A (g) of the Indian Constitution states that “it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures.” This is a fundamental duty of every citizen living in the country. The Indian constitution states in Article 48 (A): “Protection and improvement of the environment and safeguarding of forests and wildlife: The State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.” This comes under the directive principles of state policy. It does not attract judicial action, but violations of fundamental rights are punishable. The one of interest here is article 21 of the Indian constitution. In 2014, in accordance with the amendments made in the constitution, the apex court in its judgment passed in Sher Singh vs State of Himachal Pradesh held that the state is under a constitutional obligation to protect as well as improve the environment as per Article 48 (A) and Article 51A (g).
Article 253 of the Indian constitution gives power to the parliament to make laws. And by exercising this power, the Environment Protection Act of 1986 was passed. The complete act is important from the perspective of the judiciary, but some things which are very important and can be explained in less time are: first, the act has the primary purpose of assuring environmental protection, pollution prevention, and reduction, as well as the ability to take stern action against violators. Second, it is a law that supersedes all other laws. This implies that if an act is committed that might be prosecuted under various statutes, including this Act, the EPA 1986 will take precedence. Third, the Act compelled the country to take significant notice of environmental degradation.
In Vellore’s Citizen Forum vs. UOI, 1996, which is also known as the Tamil Nadu Tanneries Case, it was held that the polluter-pay principle is an integral part of the constitution. In MC Mehta vs UOI & Ors., 1986, which is also known as the Taj Trapezium Case, the honorable Supreme Court of India directed the use of coal by industries and directed them to use compressed natural gas. and said that clean fuel should be used by vehicles. A Bhurelal Committee was also set up to set a time frame for switching over to CNG fuel, as the court understands it is not an easy step and expert guidance is needed.
The list goes even longer when we talk about measures that are being taken by international organizations in order to curb environmental degradation. In many countries, environmental officers are appointed not only as ministers but also at ground level. A protocol is a final convention, an agreement where the parties accept the legal obligation. Many conventions and protocols have been signed since the 1970s. For example, in 1985, the Vienna Convention was adopted for the protection of the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol was adopted in 1989 to reduce ozone depletion. A very important one, the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 for the sole purpose of climate change. The Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste (1992)
The question that was raised in the title above was, is sustainable living possible? The answer should be yes, but it will require ongoing efforts. The path of greediness that we have chosen and depleted the resources by a large amount needs to be reversed back. We have an advantage, the advantage of time. We are at a time when things are still in our hands. It will be tough once we reach a point where we are not even left with the resources to recreate them. Judgments, amendments, and laws are all secondary; a citizen’s duty towards his environment should be first and foremost.