World Environment Day: Recent Supreme Court Judgments on Environment Protection

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June 05, World Environment Day, serves as a yearly prompt to cherish and preserve the natural heritage of our planet. This day is celebrated to draw attention to how crucial it is to preserve the environment and spread awareness of the need to do so by taking supportive and positive actions. On this day people around the world come together to reflect on the condition of the environment and to make coordinated efforts to preserve and revitalize it. This can be done via campaigns, events, and drives that cultivate an urge to protect the environment and move forward to a sustainable future. India being a land rich in biodiversity and natural resources, faces various environmental challenges arising from rapid urbanization, deforestation, industrialization, and pollution. Acknowledging the seriousness of these obstacles and the legal requirement to protect the environment for current and future generations, the Supreme Court of India has become a pioneer in environmental law. 

One of the landmark contributions of the Supreme Court toward environmental protection was the evolution of the concept of the 'Public Trust Doctrine.' This doctrine, rooted in ancient legal principles, holds that certain resources such as air, water, and forests are held in trust by the government for the benefit of the public. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term ‘public trust doctrine’ is defined as “a doctrine asserting that the state holds land lying beneath navigable waters as trustee of a public trust for the benefit of its citizens.” In layman’s language, this concept ensures that the State, for the people, must protect and preserve natural resources from being exploited and eroded. Through a series of progressive judgments, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that every citizen has a fundamental right to a clean environment and that the state must ensure the protection of this right. Today (June 05), on the occasion of World Environment Day, let us explore some of the recent judgments delivered by the Supreme Court of India that help foster a healthy environment. 

Environment Protection: Recent Supreme Court Judgments 

The Indian Constitution does not provide any direct provision that relates to the protection and preservation of the environment but under Article 21 of the Consitution of India, the right to a clean and healthy environment is incorporated as a fundamental right. Moreover, the Constitution expresses its intention to ensure a clean and safe living environment through numerous Acts such as the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, and others, and landmark judgments. Some of the recent judgments are discussed as follows:

Bench: Justice BR Gavai and Justice Aravind Kumar

Articles and Acts Involved: {Constitution of India, 1950- Articles 21, 32, 226, 227, and 309}, {National Green Tribunal Act, 2010- Section 22}, {Himachal Pradesh Town & Country Planning Act, 1977- Sections 13, 14, 15, 15-A, 18, 19, 20, and 87}, {Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980}, {Himachal Pradesh Municipal Corporation Act, 1994}, and {Himachal Pradesh Town & Country Planning Rules, 1978}

Supreme Court Decision: The case was related to the development plan, the Shimla Development Plan, 2041, which was stayed by the National Green Tribunal due to environmental concerns. In this case, the SC emphasized the need to maintain a balance between the development and protection/preservation of environmental ecology. It highlighted that the conservation of forests plays a vital role in maintaining the ecology. The bench added, “It acts as processors of the water cycle and soil and also as providers of livelihoods. As such, preservation and sustainable management of forests deserve to be given due importance in the formulation of policies by the State.” The top court held that the development had been finalized considering the reports of various experts from fields including environment and urban planning. It further added, “There are sufficient safeguards to balance the need for development while taking care of and addressing the environmental and ecological concerns. If any of the citizen has any grievance that any provision is detrimental to the environment or ecology, it is always open to raise a challenge to such an independent provision before the appropriate forum. The appellant-State of Himachal Pradesh and its instrumentalities are permitted to proceed with the implementation of the development plan.”

Bench: Justice BR Gavai, Justice PS Narasimha, and Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra

Articles and Acts Involved: {Environment (Protection) Act, 1986- Section 3(3)}, {Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974}, {Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980}, {Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981}, {Environment (Protection) Act, 1986} and {Biological Diversity Act, 2002}

Supreme Court Decision: This case was in the context of institutionalization and reconstitution of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) which was constituted by the order of the top court on May 09, 2002. The SC bench approved a new body of experts set up by the Centre for consultation on environmental and forest matters. Moreover, it also issued various guidelines for the authorities, bodies, executive officers, and regulators entrusted with environmental duties and mandated regular audits to ensure appropriate functioning, some of these include, “the authorities and bodies must notify norms for public hearing, the process of decision-making, prescription of right to appeal, and timelines,’ ‘The authorities and bodies must receive adequate funding and their finances must be certain and clear,’ and ‘These bodies must prescribe the method of accountability by clearly indicating the allocation of duties and responsibilities of their officers.’ The top court bench concluded the judgment by stating that “The role of the constitutional courts is to ensure that such environmental bodies function vibrantly, and are assisted by robust infrastructure and human resources. The constitutional courts will monitor the functioning of these institutions so that the environment and ecology is not only protected but also enriched.”

Bench: Justice BR Gavai, Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra, and Justice Sandeep Mehta

Articles and Acts Involved: {Wild Life Protection Act, 1972} and {Forest Conservation Act, 1980}

Supreme Court Decision: In this case, the SC bench pulled up the former Uttarakhand Forest Minister and Divisional Forest Officer for illegal construction and felling of trees in the Jim Corbett National Park. It said, “This is a classic case that shows how the politicians and the bureaucrats have thrown the public trust doctrine in the dustbin…This is a case that shows how a nexus between a Politician and a Forest Officer has resulted in causing heavy damage to the environment for some political and commercial gain. Even the recommendation of the Senior Officers of the Forest Department, the Vigilance Department, and the Police Department which objected to his posting at a sensitive post have been totally ignored. We are amazed at the audacity of the then Hon’ble Forest Minister and Mr. Kishan Chand, DFO  in giving a total go-bye to the statutory provisions. However, since the matter is pending investigation by the CBI, we do not propose to comment any further on the matter.” The operative part of the judgment states that “It is well known that the presence of a Tiger in the forest is an indicator of the well-being of the ecosystem. Unless steps are taken for the protection of the Tigers, the ecosystem revolving around Tigers cannot be protected. The figures which are placed before us to show that there has been a substantial reduction in tiger poaching and an increase in the tigers’ strength throughout the country. However, that should not be enough. The ground realities cannot be denied. The events like illegal constructions and illicit felling of trees on a rampant scale like the one that happened in the Corbett National Park cannot be ignored. Steps are required to prevent this.”

Bench: Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice Manoj Misra, and Justice JB Pardiwala

Articles and Acts Involved: {Constitution of India, 1950}

Supreme Court Decision: The jurisdiction of the top Court was invoked in this case to protect the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) and the Lesser Florican, both of whom are on the verge of extinction. To conserve the species, a Writ Petition was instituted. The bench also addressed certain steps mentioned by the Union of India in the affidavit that detailed steps it had taken thus far and had also undertaken to implement a host of measures in the future, which were aimed at conserving the critically endangered GIB. Some of these include, the GIB movement shall be monitored using satellite telemetry, ‘National Bustard Day’ will be celebrated to highlight the need for conservation, Local grass seed dissemination will be used to restore degraded grasslands, Capacity building programmes will be conducted and collaboration with scientific organizations will be fostered. Further, local stakeholders will be involved in initiatives aimed at conserving the GIB and awareness programs will be implemented in the relevant areas, and others. Further, the SC said, “The Union of India and the concerned ministries are directed to implement the measures described… which it has undertaken to implement.”

Bench: Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice Manoj Misra, and Justice JB Pardiwala

Articles and Acts Involved: {Constitution of India, 1950} and {Criminal Procedure Code, 1973- Section 144}

Supreme Court Decision: In this case, the bench expressed concern over the violation of environmental norms due to extensive clearance activities, as the construction of the Silchar Greenfield Airport Project proceeded without the required Environmental Clearance. It ruled that NGT 'abdicated' its duties by not interfering with the construction of the Silchar Greenfield Airport Project. The bench overturned the decision of the NGT and directed that no operations relating to the construction of the proposed Greenfield airport at the Doloo tea estate be undertaken unless mandatory environmental clearance is acquired. The operative part of the judgment illustrates that “Environmental regulations are in place precisely to ensure that developmental projects, such as the establishment of airports, are undertaken in a manner that minimizes adverse ecological impacts and safeguards the well-being of both the environment and local communities. While acknowledging the importance of infrastructure development, it is paramount that such projects proceed in harmony with environmental laws to prevent irreparable damage to ecosystems and biodiversity. The requirement for Environmental Clearance serves as a crucial safeguard against unchecked exploitation of natural resources and helps uphold the principles of sustainable development- which safeguards the interests of both present and future generations. Therefore, while the decision to establish an airport may serve broader policy objectives, it must be executed within the confines of legal frameworks designed to protect the environment and ensure responsible resource management. Failure to adhere to these norms not only undermines the integrity of environmental governance but also risks long-term environmental degradation and societal discord.”


1. When is World Environment Day celebrated?
2. What is the Public Trust Doctrine?