Right against climate change a fundamental right, says SC

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News Excerpt: 

In a case relating to the conservation of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the Supreme Court has asserted that individuals possess a "right to be shielded from the detrimental impacts of climate change," a right that ought to be upheld under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

More About the News:

The Bench highlighted the increasing significance of the overlap between climate change and human rights in recent times, emphasizing the urgent need for states to tackle climate-related consequences with a rights-based approach.

The Case Before SC: 

  • The case before the Supreme Court revolved around a writ petition filed by retired government official and conservationist M K Ranjitsinh, aimed at securing protection for the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB) and the Lesser Florican. 
  • Among other demands, the petition called for the formulation and execution of an emergency response plan to safeguard and revive the GIB population. This included measures such as the installation of bird diverters, halting the approval of new projects and lease renewals for existing projects, and dismantling power infrastructure like overhead transmission lines, wind turbines, and solar panels within and around vital habitats. 
  • During a hearing held in March, the apex court was considering an appeal to modify its April 19, 2021 order, which restricted the establishment of overhead transmission lines within a territory spanning approximately 99,000 sq km in the GIB habitat across Rajasthan and Gujarat. 
  • The Ministry of Power, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy had filed the modification plea, citing adverse implications for India's power sector. 
  • They argued that undergrounding power lines was not feasible. Additionally, the ministries referenced India's commitments under the Paris climate treaty for transitioning to non-fossil fuel energy sources as a key reason for seeking a modification of the 2021 order.

What did the SC say:

  • The Supreme Court revised its previous order from April 2021, now instructing to evaluate the feasibility of undergrounding power lines in specific regions, taking into account factors such as terrain, population density, and infrastructure needs.
  • Recognizing that its earlier directives were not practically implementable and would not effectively contribute to the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the ruling essentially endorsed the Union's affidavit outlining measures "for the conservation and protection" of the GIB.
  • However, the court also made additional observations concerning climate change and legal proceedings in other jurisdictions. The ruling emphasized India's obligations in preventing climate change and mitigating its adverse impacts, asserting the necessity to consider these obligations alongside various competing factors before making decisions.
  • Referring to the environmental aspects of the Directive Principles of State Policy, the court underscored the need to interpret them in conjunction with the right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

How have the Courts interpreted Article 21 earlier:

  • The Supreme Court has long recognized Article 21 as the cornerstone of fundamental rights in the Constitution. It has emphasized that the right to life encompasses more than mere existence, extending to all rights that contribute to a meaningful and dignified life for individuals.
  • In the 1980s, the Court interpreted the right to a clean environment as part of Article 21. Various rights, such as the right to education, the right to shelter (particularly for slum dwellers), the right to clean air, the right to livelihood (for hawkers), and the right to medical care, have been subsumed under the ambit of Article 21.
  • However, the realization of these "new" rights often requires the formulation of policies and enactment of legislation. Despite numerous environmental rights cases, issues like clean air remain pressing concerns. Nonetheless, their explicit recognition as fundamental rights serves two crucial purposes: 
    • First, it prompts Parliament to address these issues, and 
    • Second, it provides citizens with a platform to litigate these matters in constitutional courts in the future.
  • While discussing India's international commitments to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, the apex court also noted the absence of specific legislation addressing climate change and its associated concerns. However, the Court emphasized that the lack of such legislation does not negate Indians' entitlement to a "right against adverse effects of climate change."

What are the implications of the judgment for environmental jurisprudence:

  • Environmentalists have emphasized that the Supreme Court's judgment underscores the importance of strengthening environmental and climate justice by highlighting the diverse impacts of climate change on various communities.
  • A crucial aspect of the judgment, which is the broadening of the scope of Article 14. Over the past few decades, the apex court has expanded the right to life to include the right to a clean environment. 
  • The judgment not only aims to mitigate environmental pollution but also takes proactive steps to address environmental and climate justice issues while considering India's international commitments.
  • The judgment will establish an important legal precedent and influence public discourse on environmental matters. The ruling has the potential to shape future government policies.


The Supreme Court has frequently invoked the Constitution to uphold human rights related to environmental issues, including the right to live in a healthy environment, access to pollution-free water and air, and residing in a pollution-free setting. Such recognitions typically highlight broader public interest concerns where existing laws and policies are insufficient.

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