A Cleaner Future: The Impact of India's New Environmental Ruling

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New Delhi (India), May 8: For us - human beings - to survive it is useful to pause and remember that we are alive and dependent on the air we breathe. A clean environment is an existential need.  History throws up ample examples of a favourable climate being the cornerstone for the growth of civilisations too. As the world heats up, there is no aspect of life as we know it that will not be impacted by climate change. Without a clean and healthy environment, there is very little hope for the survival of the human race.  To adapt to the ‘new normal’ of climate events and their aftermath, interdisciplinary efforts from every section of society will be key to survival. 

Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court of India's recent ruling affirming the constitutional right to be ‘free from the adverse effects of climate change’ recognises and underscores the fundamental premise of being in a state of oneness with the environment.  The justices noted that adverse impacts like pollution and extreme weather exacerbate the quality of life. 

Globally, efforts to ‘green wash’ are being called out and the Apex Court’s judgement is an important discussion point that has implications for existing environmental considerations such as the fundamental construction of development works. Alongside we also have the challenge of the increasingly visible climate change impacts that often crush the possibilities of oneness of life and the environment. 

Over the years, working in emergencies we have a clear understanding how to anticipate stress in vulnerable environments, the need to have the right science and data handy, and to quickly operationalise multi-disciplinary frameworks to provide immediate assistance to affected communities. It’s also important to underscore that throughout our work while we restore the lives of those impacted by disasters the principle of dignity of life is the foundation of every intervention. 

The challenge that is looming large is that with increased climate events, we know that larger numbers of affected people may become invisible. The data for this has been out there for some time now – that with any disaster it does take a family close to 19 years to recover – in terms of surviving, recovering and rebuilding their lives since climate change has impacts on the survival of communities, their health, assets and livelihoods.  

While this landmark decision, has emerged from a case focused initially on the conservation of two endangered bird species—the Great Indian Bustard and the Lesser Florican, it’s a pivotal moment in India's legal and environmental history. Highlighting Articles 14 and 21, which not only guarantee the right to equality before the law and the right to life and personal liberty, respectively but now also extend to include a clean environment and protection against climate change. The judgement frames climate change mitigation as an issue of climate justice and fundamental human rights, not just ecological conservation. It underlines the extensive impact of climate change on various aspects of life, affecting rights to health, clean water, safe housing, livelihood, and personal integrity—spanning information, expression, and participation.

The judgement thus marks a significant shift in the legal landscape regarding environmental issues, recognising the constitutional right to be protected from the adverse effects of climate change. The recognition of this fundamental right reinforces the work we do. On the ground, we experience local wisdom – in saving waterbodies, and wetlands, building sustainably always keeping nature’s interests in the planning and recovery stages.    Remember our life lives outside us – in the clean air we breathe and the healthy environments that sustain all that we need to survive – air, food and water. 

The author is the Director of the Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS) and an Ashoka Fellow. 

It is imperative that society as a whole work together to protect the environment in which we live - not only to survive but to thrive. This will require a collaborative approach in which the critical pillars of society communities, private sector and government come together to build resilient environments in which communities threatened by climate change have enough resources to tackle the existential risk posed by changing climate. We have been working towards this societal-based approach to facilitate this process and have taken up the challenge to build resilient communities. 

Written by - Dr Manu Gupta, Co-Founder, SEEDS

This article is part of a featured content programme.
Published 08 May 2024, 10:16 IST

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