Life and environment are interrelated. The existence of life on earth depends on the harmonious relationship between ecosystem and environment. Especially homo-sapiens have very close interaction with nature. Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development and that they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. It is important to recognize our dependence on the earth’s natural resources. Natural resources such as air, water, and land are fundamental to all life forms: they are, much more than money and economic infrastructure, the base of our survival. To large numbers of humanity, especially communities that have been termed.

Dirty air is causing a global public health crisis. Every minute, a child dies of illness caused by air pollution. Every minute, ten adults die, prematurely, because of dirty air inhaled during their lifetime. The total, at least five million deaths annually, is larger than the annual total of deaths caused by war, murder, car accidents, plane crashes, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and Ebola combined.

Over ninety percent of the world’s population lives in regions where air pollution exceeds World Health Organization standards. The very worst air quality, somewhat surprisingly, is found in homes where solid fuels are used for cooking and heating. Women and children in particular are exposed to air pollution in the supposed safety of their own homes at levels far higher than found in even the world’s most smog-ravaged cities.

However, air pollution is also a human rights issue. Air pollution on today’s scale clearly violates the rights to life and health, the rights of the child, and the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Clean air and clean water are both essential to human health and well-being. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed a ground breaking resolution, recognizing that access to clean water is a basic human right. Around the world, genuine progress is being made in providing clean water to tens of millions of people every year

Article 21 and Right to Pollution Free Environment

One of the major developments has been the jurisprudence arising from certain remarkable judicial pronouncements in recent years, more specially relating to Article 21 of the Constitution dealing with ‘the right to life’. If one is asked which is the most important of all the articles in the Indian Constitution, one can only say – Article 21, which says no persons shall be deprived of his life and liberty – which is the guiding light of India. All the other articles are subservient to this. In other words, all articles have been formulated for keeping up this theme song of the Indian Constitution — ‘life and liberty’ — no person – not just a citizen — no person in India shall be deprived of life and liberty. It is not included as a mere platitude because over the years this article, which was a throbbing article, which was the most dynamic of all articles gathered flesh and with the help of Article 21 – the life and liberty of individuals are protected. [6] Article 21 is the celebrity provision of the Indian Constitution and occupies a unique place as a fundamental right for the people of India. It protects the life and personal liberty. It envisages and aims that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except to a procedure established by law. Here, right to life includes right to health, right to food, right to pollution free environment, etc. In simple words, Article 21 provides an inbuilt guarantee to a person for right to live with human dignity. Right to life extended its scope to include right to wholesome environment and right to sustainable development. Indian democracy wedded to rule of law aims not only to protect fundamental rights of its citizens but also to establish an egalitarian order. Law being an instrument of social engineering obliges the judiciary to carry out the process established by it.

Environmental deterioration could eventually endanger life of present and future generations. Therefore, the right to life has been used in a diversified manner in India. It includes, inter alia, the right to survive as a species, quality of life, the right to live with dignity, right to good environment and the right to livelihood. In India, these rights have been implicitly recognized as constitutional rights. The right to healthy environment has been incorporated, directly or indirectly, into the judgments of the court. Thus, it is clear that article 21 has a multidimensional interpretation. Any arbitrary, whimsical and fanciful act on the part of any state, depriving the life or personal liberty would be against Article 21 of the Indian constitution. The right to healthy environment has been incorporated, directly or indirectly, into the judgments of the court. Link between environmental quality and the right to life was first addressed by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court in the Charan Lal Sahu Case. In 1991, the Supreme Court interpreted the right to life guaranteed by article 21 of the Constitution to include the right to a wholesome environment.

In Subash Kumar, 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 recognized 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. This was reaffirmed in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India. The case concerned the deterioration of the world environment and the duty of the state government, under article 21, to ensure a better quality of environment. the Supreme Court has held that life, public health and ecology have priority over unemployment and loss of revenue. The Supreme Court ordered the Central government to show the steps they have taken to achieve this goal through national policy and to restore the quality of environment. In another case, the Supreme Court dealt with the problem of air pollution caused by motor vehicle operating in Delhi.

In Subhash Kumar vs. State. of Bihar- (1991) 1 SCC 598, the Supreme Court held that right to life is a fundamental right under Art. 21 of the Constitution and it include the right to enjoyment of pollution free water and air for full enjoyment of life. If anything endangers or impairs that quality of life in derogation of laws a citizen has recourse to Art.32 of the Constitution for removing the pollution of water or air which may be detrimental to life.

n M. C. Mehta vs. Union of India 1987 SCR (I) 819 (the Oleum Gas Leak case), the Supreme Court established a new concept of managerial liability – ‘absolute and non-delegable’ – for disasters arising from the storage of or use of hazardous materials from their factories. The enterprise must ensure that no harm results to anyone irrespective of the fact that it was negligent or not.

In Indian Council of Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India, 1996 3 SCC 212 (the Bichhri pollution case), following the decision in the Oleum Gas leak case and based on the polluter pays principle, the polluting industries were directed to compensate for the harm caused by them to the villagers in the affected areas, specially to the soil and to the underground water. Enunciating the doctrine of ‘Public Trust’ in M. C. Mehta vs. Kamal Nath (1997) 1 SCC 388, the SC held that resources such as air, sea, waters and the forests have such a great importance to the people as a whole that by leasing ecologically fragile land to the Motel management, the State Government had committed a serious breach of public trust.

Some judgments not directly related to environmental cases, also have significant implications for the struggle to establish environment as a human right. Mention should especially be made of a number of cases in which the Constitutional Right to Life (Article 21) has been interpreted widely to include a series of basic rights that include environment and livelihoods.


Such wide interpretations of Article 21 by the Supreme Court have over the years become the bedrock of environmental jurisprudence, and have served the cause of protection of India’s environment (and to a lesser extent, of livelihoods based on the natural environment). Adding to this is a large number of laws relating to environment, enacted over the last few decades However, a number of groups have also pointed out that the Constitution is deficient in that it does not explicitly provide for the citizen’s right to a clean and safe environment. In a recent submission to the committee set up to review the Constitution, these groups have proposed a number of amendments to the Constitution, for ensuring environment protection and nature conservation. These include: Recognition and incorporation of Environmental Rights as separate and independent Fundamental Rights in the Constitution of India. These follow from the above-mentioned interpretation to the term ‘Right to Life’, as given by the Supreme Court.

With the better understanding of these diverse ecosystems and their importance to humankind there is a need to preserve them. Incorporation, within the Fundamental Duties, the responsibility of panchayats and municipalities to give due regard to ecological aspects and to protect the environment, including life supporting natural ecosystems such as forests, rivers and lakes, and wild life, in the preparation of plans for economic development and social justice. This would also necessitate incorporation, into the Eleventh Schedule relating to the Panchayats, an item for protection of the environment and the promotion of ecological aspects.

Thus a chronological analysis of environmental mission of the courts has been undertaken in order to explicate the development of the ideology of environment as being part of the right to life in the Indian context is justified from the above discussion. Therefore, it is evident that article 21 is mandate for life saving environment.

This article has been written by Oorvi Agarwal,  4th year, BA-LLB student of Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.

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