Right To Wholesome Environment As A Fundamental Right


The well-being of a person and the environment where he lives are highly correlated. The catena of gas leaks latest of Visakhapatnam, Delhi’s air quality, and prevailing water scarcity in the majority of Indian cities has become the environmental hot potato. The same is the warning signs of possible harmful contingencies. Since the lucrative mindset of several individuals has surpassed their environmental stewardship, the Indian constitution has mandated environmental preservation with the essence of fundamental rights and obligations. A person has believed to lead a healthy lifestyle if he/she has not been deprived of any of the fundamental rights and has not been denied form healthy means of livelihood.

To ensure the same Indian constitution is one among the few global constitutions, which has separate provisions to address nature conservancy. Though it is quite clear that the lawmakers have not given any importance to the concept of environmental protection, or pollution control, or Rights relating to a healthy environment while drafting the constitution, But later, when the society demanded it, the same was included by the amendment of 1976 (42nd amendment).

At present, the Indian constitution has explicit provisions for environmental protection and preservation under the DPSP (Directive Principles of State Policy) and Fundamental Duties. It is a well-known fact that fundamental rights are the cornerstone on which the Indian constitution has been framed. The broader judicial interpretations on Part III of the constitution have contributed to the notion of the Right to a wholesome environment. Indeed, the former environment union minister Jayanthi Natarajan in the year 2012 had recommended considering the right to a wholesome environment as a fundamental right and its protection.

The judicial act of identifying the right to a wholesome environment as a fundamental right is the reflection of socio-economic justice promised in the preamble of the Indian constitution.

Right to a wholesome environment in a nutshell:

According to Einstein, “the environment is everything that isn’t me”. Further, Section 2 of the environmental (protection) Act, 1986 provides that the basic environmental element includes air, water, land, humans and all other creatures. Besides, the term wholesome environment connotes the healthy and harmless standard of human habitat. In 1985, the first liberal judicial interpretation of Article 21 in relation to establishing the Right to a wholesome environment as an integral part of the Right to life and personal liberty was observed and upheld by the Apex court in the case of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra and Ors. v. State of UP[1].

Advanced clarity of approaching the Right to a wholesome environment as a component of Article 21 was elucidated in the case of Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar[2]. In which, the word ‘life’ given in the stated Article was interpreted in a broad perspective, and the court held that it would expand its ambit to include environmental protection with it.

There are considerable numbers of cases, where the extended and comprehensive scope of Article 21 has reaffirmed. But before looking into those judicial pronouncements, it is a prerequisite to check out the relation between environmental protection and constitution, its background, and Articles in relevance.


The human rights-related concepts were emerged and developed only after the Second World War, despite the fact, the right to a clean and healthy environment has not ascertained. However, while reminiscing the global growth and development of environmental laws, the prominent foundation was laid on by the 25 principles of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, 1972 (Stockholm) and recommendations propounded in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 1992 (Rio De Janeiro). In which, the former recognized the privilege of a healthy and quality environment as a fundamental human right and elucidated the human’s duty to preserve ecology. The latter promoted the concept of sustainable development and encouraged organizational participants to aid for its progression and prescribed procedures to address and dispose of the environmental-related cases effectively and speedily.

As a consequence of the 1972 Stockholm conference, the National Council for Environmental Policy and Planning was established to govern and deal with the issues related to environmental concerns. Later on, the erstwhile council laid a path for the emergence of the ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

As far as India is concerned, the catchall legislation, which meant to tackle the environmental challenges, was The Environmental (protection) Act, 1986. Apart from mentioned Act there are multiple legislations in our country to conserve the ecology and to address environmental problems; some of the notable legislations are as follows:

  1. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972
  2. The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980
  3. The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010
  4. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981
  5. The Hazardous Waste Management Regulations
  6. Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991
  7. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974
  8. The Biological Diversity Act, 2002, etc.

Withal, the National Green Tribunal Act of 2010 was enacted as an outcome of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference, which empowers the National Green Tribunal to hear environmental-related civil cases.

Indian constitution and environmental protection:

Article 21:

The Part-III of Indian constitution has dealt with the Fundamental Rights granted to the citizens, in which the right to a wholesome environment or any environmental-related right has not explicitly guaranteed. But, following up the precedents decided by the Apex Court and improved scope of the law has extended the ambit of Article 21 to a privilege of a wholesome environment.

In general parlance, Article 21 is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution of India. Like any other fundamental rights, it is also safeguarded by Article 32 (Right to Constitutional Remedies). To be specific it has been stated in Article 21 that, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.” It is the central right in the realm of fundamental rights since it deals with the protection of life and personal liberty connoted as the Right to life.

The purview of the mentioned Article is hard to define, as it guarantees citizens with their life, it has much extensive application. For instance, in the case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India[3], it was held that the term Right to life does not merely denote living or existence, but it promises the Right to lead a dignified life. Furthermore, in the case of Unni Krishnan vs. State of Andhra Pradesh[4], Article 21 was held to be the heart of the Indian Constitution.

While focusing on the relation between Article 21 and the notion of a wholesome environment, importance has been given to the dicta of preventing the deprivation of life.  The life expectancy of an individual depends on the environmental quality and healthy well-being, thus the right to live in a clean environment is an integral part of the fundamental right he has bestowed with.

Directive Principles of State Policy:

The Directive Principles of State Policy have been dealt with under the Part-IV of the Indian Constitution. Even though those principles are non-binding, the state shall Endeavour its goal of providing the citizens with socio-economic justice by abiding the same, since its connotation and resemblance is the ‘instrument of instruction’ taken place in the erstwhile Government of India Act, 1935. Withal, the state has to ensure that existing and enacted legislations were not a contravention of these principles. The right to a healthy environment has guarded by the following constitutional Articles,

Article 47 provides that, the state is bound to ameliorate the living standard of the citizens, by the mean of boosting public health and nutrition.

As prompted by the Stockholm convention, the Indian government opts for enacting a separate provision to safeguard the environment, as a result, through the 42nd amendment the Articles 48-A and 51A (g) were added to the DPSP chapter of the Indian constitution.

Article 48 A imposes the duty on the state to improve and preserve the environment, which specifically mentions the protection of forests and wildlife.

Article 51(A) clause (g) elucidates that every citizen is obliged to protect and preserve the environment. It’s been clearly stated in the article 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”. Comprehensively, as per the mentioned Articles, the state and the citizens are equally responsible for the protection as well as the improvement of the environment.

Indeed, the same was held in the case of A.I.I.M.S Students Union v. A.I.I.M.S, 2001, wherein, the Apex court upholds that, the onus is on both the state and the citizens when it comes to environmental protection.

Case laws:

The judiciary has never failed to affirm an individual’s basic right to a clean and healthy environment. Some of the notable legal decisions are as follows,

The observations made in the cases of Litigation and Entitlement Kendra and Ors. v. State of UP, and Subhash Kumar v. the State of Bihar, were reasserted by the Apex court while delivering the judgment of the case Ratlam Municipality v Vardicharan[5]. Here the court held that the right to pollution-free water is a substantial part of the right to life guaranteed under Article 21.

Similarly, in the case of the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India[6], it has held that environmental degradation i.e. discharging pollutants will infringe the individual’s right to a wholesome environment, which is basically the right to life.

Further, in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, the Apex court prescribed all commercial vehicles in Delhi to switch for CNG fuel, since the court noted that caused pollution is ultimately violating Article 21. Once it was held by the Supreme Court that noise pollution will also constitute an infringement of the fundamental right to life[7].

In the Sher Singh v. State of Himachal Pradesh[8] case, the court pronounced the government to perform its obligation as per the Article 48A and to safeguard the bestowed basic human right to a clean and healthy environment of the citizens.

The ambit of Article 21 has extensively discussed in the case of Virender Gaur v. State of Haryana[9] in relation to whether or not the right to life is extended to the environmental issue of ‘Hygienic atmosphere and ecological balance’.

In the case of M.C Mehta v. Kamalnath[10], the roman principle of “Salus Populi est suprema lex” (welfare of the people is the paramount law) was discussed while rending the judgment. Subsequently, the court held that government is not only obliged to perform water distribution. Per contra, it has to ensure the healthy nature of the same. Withal, the government must enhance public awareness on/about their own rights and needs.


Throughout this piece of writing, the primary discussion was on the concept of the right to a wholesome environment as a fundamental right, but one should not overlook the ramifications of the same. The development of an environment and a clean environment are the two sides of the same coin and have an adverse effect on one another. It is a crucial task for the government to maintain the balance between these two bestowed rights. It is evident that the industries are the major contributors of pollution.

Meanwhile, the government cannot merely shut down all the industries that jeopardize the surroundings, which will ultimately hinder the country’s development as a whole. Since development and advancement are essential for a developing country like India, in order to achieve a healthy environment, a country cannot scarify its growth or vice versa. Thus, the right to development and as well the right to a healthy environment should equally be satisfied, since both are important to ensure the well-being of future and present generation.

As mentioned earlier, Article 21 is the sole fundamental right that impliedly assures the basic right to a wholesome environment after following up the multiple intensive interpretations made by the Supreme Court. But, a detailed framework on the said right is a need of the hour, since there are Res Integra questions like whether or not it is possible to achieve a pollution-free environment? How the government is going the balance the fine line between development and a healthy environment? And so on. Besides, the government should educate the general people on the principle that personal economic interest should fall behind the interest of public health.

[1] 1985 AIR 652.

[2] 1991 AIR 420.

[3] 1978 AIR 597, 1978 SCR (2) 621.

[4] 1993 AIR 2178, 1993 SCR (1) 594.

[5] 1980 AIR 1622, 1981 SCR (1) 97.

[6] 1996 AIR 1446, 1996 SCC (3) 212.

[7] Church of God (Full Gospel) in India v. KKR Majestic Colony Welfare Association [AIR 2000 SC 2773].

[8] CWPIL No.15 of 2010, 6 February 2014.

[9] Appeal (civil) 9151 of 1994, 24 November 1994.

[10] (1997)1 SCC 388.

This article has been written by Snegapriya V. S., 2nd Year B.A.LL.B student at Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT Law School).

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