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Navigating Environmental Governance: Balancing Citizen Rights and Government Duties in India

Jan. 11, 2024   •   Shreyansh Pandey


In today's complex societal landscape, preserving the environment has become a crucial priority. The relationship between government institutions and citizens plays a central role in building and sustaining a clean environment. Amid concerns about sustainability, resource depletion, and climate change, the interaction between the government's regulatory authority and citizens' active involvement adds a layer of complexity with both promise and discord. This discussion aims to unravel the intricacies of the collaboration between the government and citizens in their joint responsibility to foster a clean and sustainable environment.

However, the existence of robust legislation does not guarantee the seamless achievement of environmental goals. The government faces challenges in monitoring and enforcing compliance, particularly in sectors like construction, where the connection between industrial activities and environmental impact is evident. Issues like resource constraints, corruption, and inadequacies in punitive measures create vulnerabilities that undermine the effectiveness of environmental regulations. Consequently, there is a need to explore mechanisms to strengthen enforcement, including enhancing regulatory capacities, fortifying accountability frameworks, and fostering collaboration with civil society and the media.

Simultaneously, citizens hold both rights and responsibilities in the environmental equation. Constitutionally endorsed entitlements to a clean and healthy environment, as highlighted in landmark judgments such as M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, affirm citizens' rights to live free from pollution. These legal precedents position citizens as active participants and stakeholders in realizing and preserving their environmental entitlements.

Current case

The duty of the state to maintain a clean environment and the right of a citizen to a clean environment are both important aspects of environmental law and justice. However, sometimes these two may come into conflict with each other, especially when the state undertakes development projects or policies that may have adverse impacts on the environment and the people living in it.

One example of such a conflict is the case of M.L. Mittal vs The State Of Madhya Pradesh, where the petitioner challenged the state government's decision to construct a dam on the Narmada River, which would submerge several villages and forests. The petitioner argued that the dam would violate his right to life, livelihood, and culture, as well as the right to a clean and healthy environment. He also claimed that the state had failed to conduct a proper environmental impact assessment and obtain the consent of the affected people.

The state government, on the other hand, defended its decision by invoking its duty to provide water, electricity, and irrigation to the people of the state, as well as to promote economic development and social welfare. The state also contended that the dam was necessary to prevent floods and droughts and that adequate compensation and rehabilitation measures had been taken for the displaced people.

The High Court of Madhya Pradesh, after hearing both sides, upheld the state government's decision and dismissed the petitioner's writ petition. The court held that the state had a constitutional duty to ensure the development of the state and the welfare of its people and that the dam project was in the public interest. The court also observed that the right to a clean and healthy environment was not an absolute right and that it had to be balanced with the competing rights and interests of others. The court further noted that the state had taken sufficient steps to mitigate the environmental and social impacts of the dam and that the petitioner had not shown any irreparable harm or injury to his rights.

This case illustrates how the duty of the state to maintain a clean environment and the right of a citizen to a clean environment may sometimes clash with each other, and how the courts have to weigh the pros and cons of each side and strike a balance between them. The case also shows that the concept of rights and duties is not static, but dynamic and evolving, depending on the changing circumstances and needs of the society.

Conflict between the rights of a citizen and the government

The rights of citizens that conflict with the government and its laws and rights to maintain a clean environment are mainly the rights to development, livelihood, property, and freedom of choice. These rights are often invoked by the citizens who are affected by the government's actions or policies that aim to protect the environment, such as imposing restrictions, regulations, bans, taxes, or penalties on certain activities, industries, or products that cause environmental harm or degradation.

For example, the right to development is the right of every person and nation to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from economic, social, cultural, and political development. This right may conflict with the government's duty to maintain a clean environment when the development projects or plans involve the exploitation or use of natural resources, such as land, water, minerals, forests, or wildlife, that may have negative impacts on the environment and the ecosystem. The citizens who are involved in or dependent on such activities may claim that their right to development is violated by the government's environmental regulations or interventions.

Similarly, the right to livelihood is the right of every person to have access to adequate and sustainable means of living, such as food, water, shelter, health, education, and employment. This right may conflict with the government's duty to maintain a clean environment when the livelihood sources or options of the citizens are affected by the government's environmental measures, such as banning or limiting certain occupations, industries, or products that are harmful to the environment or public health. The citizens who rely on or prefer such livelihoods may argue that their right to livelihood is infringed by the government's environmental actions or policies.

The right to property is the right of every person to own, use, dispose of, and enjoy their property, subject to certain limitations and obligations. This right may conflict with the government's duty to maintain a clean environment when the property rights or interests of the citizens are affected by the government's environmental decisions, such as acquiring, requisitioning, or restricting the use of certain lands, buildings, or resources that are needed for environmental conservation or restoration. The citizens who own or use such property may contend that their property right is violated by the government's environmental orders or schemes.

The right to freedom of choice is the right of every person to make their own decisions and actions, without undue interference or coercion from others, as long as they do not harm others or violate the law. This right may conflict with the government's duty to maintain a clean environment when the choices or preferences of the citizens are affected by the government's environmental rules or incentives, such as prohibiting or discouraging certain behaviors, practices, or products that are detrimental to the environment or the climate. The citizens who want or like such choices may assert that their right to freedom of choice is violated by the government's environmental laws or programs.

Therefore, these are some of the rights of citizens that may conflict with the government and its laws and rights to maintain a clean environment. However, these rights are not absolute or unlimited, and they have to be balanced with the rights and interests of others, as well as with the common good and the public interest. The government has the responsibility to protect and promote both the rights of the citizens and the rights of the environment, and to ensure that they are harmonized and reconciled in a fair and reasonable manner.


One possible way to resolve or minimize the conflict between the duty of the state and the right of the citizen to a clean environment is to use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques. ADR is a range of methods that can help people settle their disputes without having to resort to litigation or reach a settlement more efficiently within existing litigation proceedings. ADR is based on the idea that people who are involved in a controversy are the ones best able to develop a reasonable and enduring solution because they know their own needs and interests.

Some examples of ADR techniques are facilitation, convening, mediation, consensus-building, and ombudsmen. These techniques involve the use of an objective third party, often called a neutral, who helps orchestrate the process and ensures that it is implemented fairly and that everyone is heard and shared in the decision-making. ADR can help parties communicate effectively, understand each other's perspectives, explore options, and reach agreements that are mutually acceptable and beneficial.

ADR can be applied to various types of environmental conflicts, such as those involving land use, natural resource management, industrial pollution, environmental regulation, and environmental justice. ADR can help parties to address the underlying causes of the conflict, such as diverging interests, values, beliefs, and needs, and to find common ground and shared goals. ADR can also help parties to consider the environmental, social, economic, and cultural impacts of their actions and decisions, and to balance the needs of the present and the future generations.

One example of an environmental conflict that was resolved collaboratively using ADR is the case of the Peruvian Amazon, where networks of stakeholders and protected area managers came together to create cooperative approaches to conflict management, with the ultimate goal of improving protected area governance. By building conflict management directly into protected area management, these networks were able to build more resilient governance platforms.

Therefore, ADR can be a useful tool for resolving or minimizing the conflict between the duty of the state and the right of the citizen to a clean environment, as it can foster dialogue, cooperation, and innovation among the parties involved. ADR can also help to promote environmental sustainability and social justice, as well as to prevent or reduce further escalation of the conflict.

Ways to reduce conflict

One possible way to reduce the conflict between the duty of the state and the right of the citizens to a clean environment is to reform the Indian laws that govern environmental issues and challenges.

- The Indian laws should adopt a clear and comprehensive definition of the right to a clean and healthy environment, and recognize it as a fundamental right under the Constitution.

- The Indian laws should establish a national environmental authority or commission, with adequate powers and resources, to monitor, regulate, and enforce the environmental laws and policies, and to resolve environmental disputes and grievances.

- The Indian laws should harmonize and streamline the existing environmental legislations, regulations, and standards, and ensure that they are consistent, coherent, and updated with the latest scientific and technological developments.

- The Indian laws should incorporate the principles of sustainable development, precautionary approach, polluter pays, public participation, and environmental justice, and ensure that they are applied and implemented in all environmental decisions and actions.

- The Indian laws should promote and encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques, such as facilitation, mediation, consensus-building, and ombudsmen, to resolve or minimize environmental conflicts in a collaborative and constructive manner.

These are some of the changes that we may need in Indian laws to reduce the conflict between the duty of the state and the right of the citizen to a clean environment. However, these changes are not easy or quick to implement, and they require the collective efforts and commitment of all the stakeholders involved.


The government and the people have to work together to save the environment. This is not easy and needs careful thinking and balance. The M.L. Mittal case shows that we need to change how we think about rights and duties, as society changes. The problems that come up, especially about the people's rights to development, work, property, and choice, are hard to solve when the government tries to keep the environment clean. Sometimes, talking and listening to each other can help to solve problems. This is called alternative dispute resolution (ADR). A neutral person can help the parties to communicate, understand, and agree. This has worked in some places, like the Peruvian Amazon, where it helped to make the government stronger. Another way to reduce problems is to change the laws in India. Some ideas are to define the right to a clean environment clearly, to create a national environmental authority with enough power, and to make the environmental laws consistent. Also, the laws should include ideas like sustainable development, being careful, making the polluters pay, involving the public, and being fair to everyone. This will make the environmental governance better. The people have rights to development, work, property, and choice. But the government has to keep the environment healthy. These rights are not fixed but have to be adjusted with the common good and the public interest. This needs a flexible and responsive way of thinking about rights and duties, to make sure the problems are solved fairly and reasonably. To achieve a clean and sustainable environment, we need to work together and adapt. This means the government, the people, and new ways to solve problems. We need to use a mix of legal changes, ADR, and understanding how rights and duties change. This will help us to reach environmental sustainability and social justice.


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The author affirms that this article is an entirely original work, never before submitted for publication at any journal, blog, or other publication avenue. Any unintentional resemblance to previously published material is purely coincidental. This article is intended solely for academic discussion. The author takes personal responsibility for any potential infringement of intellectual property rights belonging to any individuals, organizations, governments, or institutions.

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