Right against adverse effects of climate change part of rights to life, equality: SC

GS Paper II & III

News Excerpt:

In a significant ruling, the Supreme Court (SC) has expanded the scope of Articles 14 and 21 to include the “right against the adverse effects of climate change”.

More about the news: 

  • The bench was hearing a plea to protect the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) from losing its habitat due to power transmission lines.
  • On April 19, 2021, a Supreme Court bench ordered restrictions on the setting-up of overhead transmission lines in an area covering about 99,000 square kilometres and mooted the conversion of overhead low and high-voltage lines into underground power lines.
  • The measures for protection of GIB clash with the installations of major solar and wind energy-producing projects which are majorly operational in the same area of the country.
  • The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Ministry of Power, and Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MoNRE) later approached the SC, seeking modification of its directions. 
  • They pointed out that India has given international commitments on transition to non-fossil fuels and emissions reduction, and the area contains a large share of the country’s solar and wind energy potential. It was also contended that putting high-voltage power lines underground was technically not feasible.
  • Allowing the request, the bench pointed to the practical difficulties in implementing the order, including the technical and land acquisition challenges and prohibitive costs. 
  • The technical challenges in implementing the April 2021 order include: 
    • Underground power transmission cables are available only in 400 KV with lengths of 250 metres, which would mean more joints leading to leaks. 
    • The transmission loss in such cables is about five times higher as they don’t efficiently transmit AC power.
    • Also, the Electricity Act does not contemplate the acquisition of land for laying underground cables, while overhead transmission lines require only the right of way, adding that it may also lead to environmental issues for many vulnerable species and result in forest fires etc.

Constitutional Provisions related to Climate Change: 

  • Article 48A of the Constitution provides that the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.
  • Clause (g) of Article 51A stipulates 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. 

Key arguments given by the the three-judge bench presided by the Chief Justice of India: 

  • Although these are not justiciable provisions of the Constitution, they are indications that the Constitution recognises the importance of the natural world.
  • The importance of the environment, as indicated by these provisions, becomes a right in other parts of the Constitution. 
  • Article 21 recognises the right to life and personal liberty while Article 14 indicates that all persons shall have equality before the law and the equal protection of laws. These Articles are important sources of the right to a clean environment and the right against the adverse effects of climate change.
  • Right to a clean environment means that without a clean environment that is stable and unimpacted by the vagaries of climate change, the right to life is not fully realised. 
  • The right to health (part of the right to life under Article 21) is impacted due to factors such as air pollution, shifts in vector-borne diseases, rising temperatures, droughts, shortages in food supplies due to crop failure, storms and flooding. 
    • The inability of underserved communities to adapt to climate change or cope with its effects violates the right to life (Article 21) as well as the right to equality (Article 14).
  • The CJI also touched upon the issues of climate change jurisprudence and the need to harness renewable energy, especially solar power, as well as balance the conservation of the GIB with the conservation of the environment as a whole.
  • A blanket direction for undergrounding high voltage and low voltage power lines of the nature that was directed by this Court would need recalibration. 
  • It set up a nine-member committee of experts to assess the feasibility of undergrounding power lines in specific areas, considering factors such as terrain, population density and infrastructure requirements. 
    • The committee consists of independent experts, members of the National Board of Wildlife, power company representatives, and other stakeholders. 
    • It asked the committee to complete its task and submit a report to this court through the Union Government on or before July 31, 2024.

The intersection between climate change and human rights: 

  • This has been put in sharp focus underscoring the imperative for states to address climate impacts through the lens of rights. 
  • States owe a duty of care to citizens to prevent harm and to ensure overall well-being and the right to a healthy and clean environment is undoubtedly a part of this duty of care. 
  • States are compelled to take effective measures to mitigate climate change and ensure that all individuals have the necessary capacity to adapt to the climate crisis.
  • For e.g.- It is essential to harness power from sources of renewable energy in Rajasthan and Gujarat to meet the rising power demand in the country expeditiously and sustainably. This is also necessitated by India’s international commitments with respect to climate change.

The court underscored the important role solar power would play in arresting the ills of climate change.

India’s Solar Potential: 

  • India’s goal to achieve 500 GW of non-fossil-based electricity generation capacity by 2030 aligned with its efforts to be net zero by 2070.
  • In 2023-24, out of the total generation capacity of 9,943 MW added, 8,269 is from non-fossil fuel sources.
  • According to the Renewable Energy Statistics 2023 released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), India has the 4th largest installed capacity of renewable energy.
  • To achieve these targets, India has implemented various policy measures and initiatives to promote renewable energy investment, innovation and adoption. 
  • The Centre’s affidavit in the case highlighted how India’s commitment to transition to non-fossil fuels is not just a strategic energy goal but a fundamental necessity for environmental preservation. 
  • Solar energy “as a pivotal solution in the global transition towards cleaner energy sources”:
    • The bench said that “India urgently needs to shift to solar power due to three impending issues:
      • India is likely to account for 25% of global energy demand growth over the next two decades, necessitating a move towards solar for enhanced energy security and self-sufficiency while mitigating environmental impacts. Failure to do so may increase dependence on coal and oil, leading to economic and environmental costs.
      • The rampant air pollution emphasises the need for cleaner energy sources like solar to combat pollution caused by fossil fuels. 
      • The declining groundwater levels and decreasing annual rainfall underscore the importance of diversifying energy sources. Solar power, unlike coal, does not strain groundwater supplies. The extensive use of solar power plants is a crucial step towards cleaner, cheaper, and sustainable energy.


Despite governmental policy and rules and regulations recognising the adverse effects of climate change and seeking to combat it, no single or umbrella legislation in India relates to climate change and the attendant concerns. However, this does not mean that the people of India do not have a right against the adverse effects of climate change.

Book A Free Counseling Session