India: Remedies Available Under Indian Legal Framework vis-à-vis Environmental Protection: An Overview

Last Updated: 7 December 2018
Article by Rishab Khare and Arjun Patel


In India, there are a plethora of legal provisions which seek to protect the environment from attacks from the human race. Along with the various Constitutional provisions, there are several legislative enactments passed by the Parliament of India in order to achieve the constitutional objective of ensuring a wholesome environment to the citizens of India. To name a few, they are Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981; Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Also, there are several provisions under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which highlight the penal provisions in case of injury sustained by any individual on account of environmental damage caused by any other individual. Also, there are ample remedies available under the common law vis-à-vis environmental protection such as nuisance, trespass, negligence and strict liability.

Constitutional provisions vis-à-vis Environmental Protection

The directive principles of State Policy and the chapter on fundamental duties explicitly enunciate the national commitment to protect and improve the environment. "It is now well settled judicial principle that right to pollution free environment is the fundamental right and human right of a citizen."1 "The Supreme Court in its judicial pronouncements held that the "precautionary principle" and "polluter pay principle" is law of land.2"

Before the 42nd Amendment, the word 'environment' was not mentioned in the Indian Constitution. By this Amendment, Article 48-A was added in the directive principles of state policy and by Article 51-A, a new provision was inserted in the form of fundamental duty. According to Article 48-A "the State shall Endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country".

As per the sub-clause (g) of Art. 51-A, "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".

In Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. State of UP3, the Hon'ble Supreme Court observed that protection of environment is not only a duty of the state under Article 48-A, but the citizens of India are also duty bound to protect the environment under Article 51-A (g) of the Constitution. Originally fundamental duty incorporated in the Constitution was not directly enforceable. However, with the passage of time and through judicial activism, necessary stimulus was provided to achieve the objective behind the incorporation of fundamental duty in the Constitution for the protection of environment. In L. K. Koolwal v. State of Rajasthan and Ors4, the court explained the ambit of Article 51-A. It is true that it is the duty of the citizen to protect the environment under Article 51-A (g) of the Constitution but this Article also creates a right in the favour of the citizen to move to the court for the enforcement of the Article 51-A(g).

In M.C.Mehta v. State of Orissa5 , court observed that there cannot be any right without the duty. So if there is insanitation in the environment it will severely affect the life of citizens and hence it is the violation of fundamental rights of citizens. Hence, it is the duty of the citizen to see that the rights which are provided to them under the constitution are fulfilled by the state. In AIIMS Students' Union v. AIIMS and Ors6, Supreme Court observed that even though fundamental duties are not enforceable by the court of law, it still gives important guidance for the interpretation of constitutional provisions for the protection of environment. Court also emphasised that fundamental duties should be given its full meaning as intended by the 42nd constitutional amendment. When the court is approached to give effect to directive principles of state policy and fundamental rights, it cannot run away from its responsibility by saying that priorities are a matter of policy.

Part III of the Constitution deals with Fundamental Rights. Herein, Article 21 deals with right to life. This right would be meaningless if there is no healthy environment for the citizens to live in. In M.C. Mehta v. Union of India7 the Supreme Court held that the right to live in pollution- free environment is a part of fundamental right to life under Article-21 of the Constitution. In Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar8, Hon'ble Supreme court held that right to life under Article 21 includes the right to enjoyment of pollution free water and air. In P.A. Jacob v. Superintendent of Police, Kottayam9, the court held that subjecting an unwilling person to disastrous levels of noise pollution would amount to infringement of fundamental right of an individual under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

Remedies available under common law vis-à-vis Environmental Protection

a) Nuisance

Nuisance is related to unlawful interference with one's enjoyment of land or any right arising from it, thereto. It may be categorized into Public Nuisance or Private Nuisance. As the name suggests, public nuisance deals with interference with a right pertaining to public. Whereas, private nuisance is interference with right which is exercised exclusively by a private entity or an individual. There are a few remedies available vis-à-vis public nuisance in Criminal Procedure Code, 1973. Section 91 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 prescribes that a suit may be filed to obtain a suitable relief or injunction for any cause of action affecting or likely to affect public nuisance. Also, in Criminal Procedure Code, a magistrate is empowered to restrain any person from carrying out an act that may give effect to public nuisance.10 In Ramlal v. Mustafabad Oil and Oil Ginning Factory11, the Punjab and Haryana Court observed that once a noise is found to be above the necessary threshold to attract the liability of public nuisance, it is no valid defense to contend that such noise arose out of any legal activity. Apart from this, public nuisance has been made punishable under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.12

b) Negligence

It is a point to note that in order to bring a successful action vis-à-vis negligence, it is necessary to establish a direct nexus between negligence and the damage caused. The other ingredient that constitutes negligence is that the respondent did not take sufficient care to avoid public nuisance that the person was required to take such care under the law. In Naresh Dutt Tyagi v. State of Uttar Pradesh13, fumes released from the pesticides leaked to a nearby property through ventilators that resulted in the death of three children and foetus in a pregnant woman. It was held by the court that it was a clear-cut case of negligence.

c) Trespass

It is an unlawful interference with another's possession of property. The primary ingredient to establish a case of trespass is that there should be an intentional invasion of another's physical possession of property. Thus, two primary ingredients to establish a case of trespass are:

i.) There should be intentional interference

ii.) Such interference should be direct in nature

d) Strict Liability

The concept of strict liability started from the case of Rylands v. Fletcher14, "the person who, for his own purposes, brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief, if it escapes, must keep it in at his own peril and if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape"15. The exceptions to the rule of strict liability are as follows:

i.) Act of God

ii.) Act committed by a third party

iii.) Any fault committed by plaintiff himself

iv.) An act committed after obtaining expressed or implied consent of the plaintiff

v.) Natural use of land by the defendant

The locus classicus vis-à-vis strict liability in Indian setting is M C Mehta v. Union of India16, popularly known as Oleum Gas Leak Case. In this case, the Hon'ble Supreme Court observed that if a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity is being carried out in any premises and in case of a release of such toxic substance any damage is caused, such enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable for all the damages arising thereto, and any of the exceptions listed out above are not applicable as a defense in a case of strict liability. In addition to this, the court also held in the Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India17 that the compensation has to be directly proportional to magnitude and capacity of the enterprise because such compensation needs to have a deterrent effect.

Penal Provision vis-à-vis Environmental Protection

There are specific penal provisions in various legislations for the protection of environment. Chapter XIV of the Indian Penal Code (hereinafter referred as IPC), containing section 268 to 294-A, deals with offences relating to public health, safety etc. The main object of these provisions is to protect the public health, safety and convenience by rendering those act\s punishable which make the environment polluted and dangerous to the life of an individual.

Section 268 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, defines the term public nuisance and section 290 of the IPC makes public nuisance punishable. Thus, under these provisions if any act or omission causing injury to any person by polluting the environment takes place, the same can be subjected to prosecution. Noise pollution is also punishable under Section 268 of IPC. In K Ramkrishnan v. State of Kerala.18, the court held that smoking in public place comes under the category of public nuisance. It is punishable under section 290 of Indian Penal Code. Also, in Murli S. Deora v. Union of India19, the Supreme Court held that under Article 21, smoking in public place is a violation of fundamental right of those who don't smoke.

Sections 269 to 271 deal with negligent acts which are likely to spread infection of diseases dangerous to the life of people. These acts are punishable under sections 269 to 271. The punishment provided u/s 269 and 271 is imprisonment up to six months or fine or both. Section 277 can be used for preventing the water pollution. Under section 277 punishment of imprisonment is up to three months or a fine up to 500 Rupees or both. Apart from these, under section 426, 430, 431 and 432 of IPC, pollution caused by mischief is also punishable.

There are two primary legislations that enlist penal provisions for violation of the law propounded in those legislations. They are The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. According to Section 47 of The Water Pollution Act, a person is vicariously liable for the offence committed by the company if such person is in charge of the functions committed by the company or for conduct of business of the company. This is indispensible ingredient to constitute a case under S. 47 of the Act. However, the defense available under this section is that the offence in question must have been committed without knowledge or consent of the accused in question.

"It also needs to be noted that Section 16 of Environment Act and Section 47 of The Water Act are parimateria to each other. Herein, it is paramount that the complaint contains specific averments against the accused. It is not out of place to mention that the provisions of Section 16 of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 are parimateria to the Section 141 of the Negotiable Instrument Act as well as Section 25 of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and Section 278 B of the Income Tax Act. The Hon'ble Supreme Court while dealing with the cases under Negotiable Instruments Act in National Small Industries Corporation Ltd. vs Harmeet Singh Pental and another reported in 2010 (3) S.C.C. 330 has held that it is mandatory for the complainant to make averments in the complaint petition that the accused is directly in charge and was responsible to the company for the conduct of the business of the company. The Hon'ble Supreme Court said that if the said necessary ingredient is missing in the complaint petition, then in that case, prosecution launched against the accused cannot be sustained."20


It has been observed that there are more than enough legislations that try to deal with the menace of environment degradation. The massive amount of legislation has led to a situation of confusion and difficulty in enforcement. To deal with the same, there is a need for a strong integrated legislation that can provide a much clearer and integrated approach which can provide the necessary protection to environment. Also, the pollution boards have been given the powers to launch prosecution before the court of law to bring the violators to book as far as environmental degradation is concerned. The idea of giving quasijudicial powers to these boards can be considered so they can impose penalty upon those who violate the law and also reduce the burden on the already overburdened courts.


1 Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar, AIR 1990 SC 420

2 Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India (1996) 5 SCC 647 at 659- 660.

3 AIR 1987 SC 359

4 AIR 1988 Raj 2.

5 AIR 1992 Ori 225

6 JT 2001 (8) SC 218

7 AIR 1987 SC 1086 (Popularly Known as Oleum Gas Leakage Case).

8 AIR 1990 SC 420

9 A.I.R. 1993 Ker. 1

10 Section 133 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973

11 AIR 1968 P&H. 399

12 Section 268 of Indian Penal Code, 1860.

13 1995 Supp (3) SCC 144

14 1868 LR 3 HL 330

15 Ibid.

16 A.I.R 1987 S.C. 1086.

17 1991 4 SCC 584

18 A.I.R. 1999 Ker. 385.

19 2001 8 SCC 765

20 Prakash Chandra Tibrewal and Ors v. The Regional officer Jharkhand State Pollution, W.P.(Cr.) No. 26 of 2015

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