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Fresher's take on India's Environmental Legal Landscape

Mar. 13, 2024   •   Sneha, 2ND year student of LL.B. Professional course, Department of Law, Kurukshetra University, Kurukshetra

Student's Pen  

India's Environmental Legal Landscape: Progress and Potential


In the article, the importance and reach of environmental legislation in India are examined, with a focus on the necessity of striking a balance between development and conservation. India, a nation grappling with rapid development, faces significant environmental challenges. This article explores India's environmental legal landscape, highlighting its progressive framework and the potential for further improvement. The analysis examines key legislation like the National Green Tribunal Act and the Environment Protection Act, showcasing their role in environmental protection. It then delves into areas with room for enhancement, such as stricter enforcement mechanisms and public participation. The article concludes by emphasizing the crucial role of robust environmental law in ensuring sustainable development for India's future.


Environmental degradation poses a substantial threat to India's rich biodiversity, public health, and overall well-being. Environmental law serves as a critical instrument to safeguard India's natural resources and promote sustainable development. The goal of environmental law in India is to safeguard and preserve the environment through a broad range of laws, rules, and court rulings. The need for robust environmental legislation became increasingly apparent as India underwent rapid industrialization and urbanization, leading to widespread pollution and degradation of natural resources. This article traces the evolution of environmental law in India, from its inception to the present day, highlighting significant milestones, legal frameworks, important acts, and the role of the government in environmental governance.

The roots of environmental law in India can be traced back to ancient times, where principles of environmental protection were embedded in religious and cultural practices. With the passage of numerous significant laws in the middle of the 20th century, contemporary environmental law in India started to take shape. Environmental regulations were established by the groundbreaking Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. However, formal environmental legislation took shape during the colonial period with laws focusing on forest conservation and pollution control. Post-independence, India witnessed industrial growth. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984[1] was a watershed moment that highlighted the urgent need for a comprehensive environmental regulatory framework.

Legal framework:

The Indian Constitution lays the groundwork for environmental protection. The State is directed under Article 48A, a Directive Principle of State Policy[2], to "endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country."

Furthermore, Article 51A(g) casts a fundamental duty upon every citizen "to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures." These provisions underscore the constitutional significance of environmental stewardship. Key environmental legislation in India includes:

  • The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986: An umbrella legislation providing the broad framework for environmental protection and improvement.
  • The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974: Aims to prevent and control water pollution.
  • The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981: Designed to prevent and control air pollution.
  • The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972: Focuses on the protection of wild animals, birds, and plants.
  • The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980: controls the appropriation of forest land for uses other than forestry.

India has a strong legal system, but it still has to deal with enduring environmental problems including deforestation, industrial pollution, and the demands of growing urbanization. Critical areas for ongoing improvement include fortifying enforcement measures, raising public awareness, supporting sustainable activities, and finding a balance between environmental preservation and economic development.


  • Strengthened Legislative Framework: India has enacted several robust environmental laws over the years, and recent amendments have aimed to tighten regulations. For example, waste management rules (for solid waste, e-waste, plastic waste, etc.) have been revised to address pollution concerns.
  • Increased Public Awareness: Through civil society, NGOs, and media, there's heightened awareness of environmental rights and the dangers of pollution. This has led to greater public scrutiny and pressure on both industries and the government.
  • Active Judiciary: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Supreme Court have proactively intervened in numerous environmental cases, holding polluters accountable and pushing for better enforcement of regulations.


  • Enforcement Gaps: While India boasts comprehensive environmental laws, implementation on the ground often remains weak. Lack of resources, capacity limitations, and sometimes a lack of political will can hinder consistent enforcement.
  • Industrial Pollution: Many industries continue to flout norms, leading to heavy air and water pollution, threatening public health and ecosystems. Monitoring and compliance need substantial improvement.
  • Balancing Development and Environment: India faces the constant struggle of balancing its need for economic development with the imperative of environmental protection. Finding sustainable solutions is a persistent challenge.
  • Climate Change: India is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. While adapting to climate change, the focus on mitigation efforts needs to increase drastically.

Recent Trends:

  • Focus on Circular Economy: The government is exploring ways to shift towards a circular economy with an emphasis on recycling, resource recovery, and waste minimization.
  • Environmental Clearances: The process for granting environmental clearances for projects has undergone changes, with some streamlining and potential risks of dilution in environmental scrutiny.
  • Public Participation: Although avenues exist, effective public participation in environmental decision-making still needs significant improvement and wider implementation.

The Way Forward

To address these challenges and solidify its environmental law regime, India requires a multifaceted approach:

  • Stronger Enforcement Mechanisms: Stricter implementation of environmental laws, increased accountability for polluters, and a well-resourced enforcement system are necessary.
  • Capacity Building: Investing in the capacity building of regulatory bodies, providing them with adequate resources, manpower, and technological tools.
  • Sustainable Development Models: Promoting and incentivizing industries to adopt cleaner technologies, sustainable practices, and a shift towards a green economy.
  • Community Empowerment: Encouraging greater public engagement in environmental protection, creating citizen-science initiatives, and strengthening local-level environmental governance.


Environmental laws in India are vital for preserving the nation's natural resources, encouraging sustainable growth, and guaranteeing the health and welfare of its people. Environmental law covers a wide range of areas, such as transportation, industry, agriculture, and urban planning, with the goal of controlling actions that negatively affect the environment and public health.

Role of the Government

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is the nodal agency responsible for environmental policy formulation, coordination, and implementation of environmental laws. Statutory bodies include:

  • Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC): The apex agency responsible for formulating environmental policies, planning, and coordinating environmental programs nationwide.
  • Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB): Monitors and controls water and air pollution, setting standards and providing technical guidance to State Pollution Control Boards.
  • State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs): Implement environmental laws at the state level, granting consents, monitoring industries, and taking action against polluters.
  • National Green Tribunal (NGT): A specialized judicial forum established in 2010 dedicated to the expeditious disposal of cases related to environmental protection and conservation.

Landmark Case Laws

  • M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Oleum Gas Leak Case): This case resulted in the Supreme Court formulating the principle of absolute liability. Industries engaged in hazardous activities are held strictly liable for any resulting harm, regardless of their negligence. This became a cornerstone principle of environmental protection.
  • Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India: The Supreme Court firmly integrated the 'Precautionary Principle' and the 'Polluter Pays Principle' into Indian environmental law. The Precautionary Principle necessitates preventive action even when potential risks are not fully established scientifically. The Polluter Pays Principal mandates that polluting entities bear the cost of remediation and prevention.
  • Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. State of Uttar Pradesh (Dehradun Quarrying Case): The Supreme Court recognized the right to a healthy environment as part of the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India (2006): Regulating Forest activities to protect biodiversity.


Environmental law in India has evolved significantly over the years to address the complex environmental challenges facing the country. While significant progress has been made in enacting legislation and establishing regulatory mechanisms, the effective implementation and enforcement of environmental laws remain key challenges. Continued efforts are needed to strengthen environmental governance, promote sustainable development, and ensure the protection of India's natural heritage for future generations.


Sneha, 2ND year student of LL.B. Professional course, Department of Law, Kurukshetra University, Kurukshetra

[1] R. Srinivasa Murthy, Mental Health of Survivors of 1984 Bhopal Disaster: A Continuing Challenge, 23 Ind Psychiatry J 86 (2014).

[2] Part4.pdf, (last visited Mar 5, 2024).

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