‘Right to clean and healthy environment’ as a Fundamental Right in India

The right to live in a clean and healthy environment is not a recent invention of the higher judiciary in India. The right has been recognised by the legal system and the judiciary in particular for over a century or so. The only difference in the enjoyment of the right to live in a clean and healthy environment today is that it has attained the status of a fundamental right the violation of which, the Constitution of India will not permit. The judiciary has managed to increase the ambit of Article 21 of the constitution of India, through various judicial pronouncements, to include the Right to a healthy and clean environment to be a fundamental right under the right to life.

Judicial Pronouncements on Right to clean and healthy environment as a fundamental right:

Article 21 of the constitution of India provides for the right to life and personal liberty, it states “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” This article imposes a duty on the state to protect the life and liberty of the people. The concept of the right to life has been broadened through the judicial pronouncements. While resolving cases relating to the environment, the judiciary considered the right to clean or the good environment as fundamental to life and upheld as a fundamental right.

The Judiciary has played a vital role in interpreting the Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The scope of Article 21 of the Constitution has been considerably expanded by the Indian Supreme Court, which has interpreted the right of life to mean the right to live a civilized life and it also includes the right to clean environment. Following are some important judicial pronouncements by the apex court of India in this regards:

Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar

In the instant case, the Court observed that ‘right to life guaranteed by article 21 includes the right of enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of life.’ Through this case, the Court recognised the right to a wholesome environment as part of the fundamental right to life. This case also indicated that the municipalities and a large number of other concerned governmental agencies could no longer rest content with unimplemented measures for the abatement and prevention of pollution. They may be compelled to take positive measures to improve the environment.

Rural Litigation and Environment Kendra, Dehradun vs. State of Uttar Pradesh

In this case, the representatives of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun wrote to the Supreme Court alleging that illegal limestone mining in the Mussorie-Dehradun region was causing damage to the fragile eco-systems in the area. The Court treated this letter as a public interest petition under Article 32 of the Constitution. And also several committees have been appointed for the full inspection of illegal mining sites. All the committees came at the conclusion that the limestone quarries whose adverse effects are very less, only those should be allowed to operate but that too after further inspection and all. Therefore, the Court ordered the closure of a number of limestone quarries. Although the Court did not mention any violation of fundamental right explicitly it impliedly admitted the adverse effects to the life of people and involved a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution.

M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India (Vehicular Pollution Case)

A matter regarding the vehicular pollution in Delhi city, it was held to be the duty of the Government to see that the air did not become contaminated due to vehicular pollution. The Apex court again confirming the right to a healthy environment as a basic human right and stated that the right to clean air also stemmed from Art 21 which referred to Right to life. This case has served to be a major landmark because of which lead-free petrol supply was introduced in Delhi. There was a complete phasing out old commercial vehicles more than 5 years old as directed by the courts.

T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India

In this very recent case concerning conservation of forests, Justice Y.K. Sabharwal, held that considering the compulsions of the States and the depletion of forest, legislative measures have shifted the responsibility from States to the Centre. Moreover, any threat to the ecology can lead to the violation of the right of enjoyment of healthy life guaranteed under Art 21, which is required to be protected. The Constitution enjoins upon this Court a duty to protect the environment.

Murli S. Deora vs. Union of India

In the instant case, it was pointed out by the Court that: “Since article 21 of the Constitution guarantees that none should be deprived of their life, then why should a non-smoker become the victim of the whole process? It was contended that smoking is injurious to health and may affect the health of smokers but there is no reason that health of passive smokers should also be injuriously affected. So, till the statutory provision is made and implemented by the legislative enactment, it was held that it would be in the interest of the citizens to prohibit smoking in public places and the person not indulging in smoking cannot be compelled to passive smoking on account of the acts of the smokers.”

Constitutional mandates on Protection of Environment

The Constitution of India originally adopted, did not contain any direct and specific provision regarding the protection of natural environment. Perhaps, the framers of the Indian Constitution, at that time, considered it as a negligible issue. However, in fact, it contained only a few Directives to the State on some aspects relating to public health, agriculture and animal husbandry. These Directives were and are still not judicially enforceable. Some of the Directive Principles of State Policy showed a slight inclination towards environmental protection i.e. Art 39(b), Art 47, Art 48 and Art 49 individually and collectively impose a duty on the State to create conditions to improve the general health level in the country and to protect and improve the natural environment. Later through a constitutional amendment, two specific provisions i.e. Article 48-A and Article 51-A (g), has been added which imposes the duty on the state as well as the citizens of the state to protect and conserve the environment.


Following a long course of active interpretation of constitutional and legislative clauses by the judiciary and vigorous efforts of some green citizens, the Indian environmental scenario has undergone a positive change. Today, the environmental consciousness imported by the courts, mingled with subsequent legislative efforts in the later years, introduced the Right to Environment as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the constitution of India.

The Courts in India have played a distinguishing role in gradually enlarging the scope of a qualitative living by engaging themselves in and resolving various issues of environmental protection. Consequently, activities posing a major threat to the environment were curtailed so as to protect the individual’s inherent right to a wholesome environment as guaranteed under various instruments for the protection of legal and human rights.

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