India gives people legal protection against climate change, but will big polluters be held to account?

The supreme court has ruled that Indian citizens should be free from climate harm. Should India’s big carbon polluters worry about impending lawsuits?

The ruling means farmers have a right not to be impacted by changing weather patterns.
India's supreme court has declared a new fundamental human right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change. The ruling means Indian farmers have a right not to be impacted by changing weather patterns. Image: 

The Indian Supreme Court recently issued a landmark judgement on human rights and climate change, which could redefine the legal landscape for how the government and corporations are held to account for climate pollution. 

The country’s highest court’s verdict ushered in a new constitutional right for India’s 1.4 billion citizens to be free from the adverse effects of climate change by drawing upon two key pieces of legislation – the fundamental right to life and personal liberty, and the fundamental right to equality.

The ruling comes one month after Europe’s top human rights court ruled that the Swiss government had violated the human rights of its citizens by failing to take sufficient action to address climate change.

Despite widespread acclaim over the ruling in New Delhi, stakeholders remain cautiously optimistic, mindful of the potential disparity between legal doctrine and tangible outcomes.

Legal experts and environmental activists have adopted a “wait-and-see” stance as they are unsure of how the judicial system will further interpret the verdict and, more importantly, how it will be applied to other crucial matters affecting nearly 18 per cent of the world’s population.

At the heart of this judicial milestone lies a protracted legal battle centred on the protection of two critically endangered bird species—the great Indian bustard and the lesser florican.

Attributing their dwindling numbers to overhead high-voltage power transmission lines installed to support renewable energy growth, the court mandated adjustments in the infrastructure to mitigate harm to these vulnerable species.

Departing from the earlier blanket ban in 2021, the court refrained from imposing a sweeping prohibition on overhead power lines spanning 99,000 square kilometres, recognising the important nature of such infrastructure.

While hearing the case, which has come to symbolise the battle to defend the environment in India, the apex court went a step further to pronounce a legally binding verdict on the effects of climate change on humans.

Environmental jurisprudence has been given impetus in recent decades in India after the setting up of the National Green Tribunal in 2010. The statutory body is a specialised judicial entity meant to exclusively expedite environmental cases and other legal matters affecting natural resources.

The tribunal’s orders are legally enforceable and the NGT is widely expected to take inspiration from the latest Supreme Court’s verdict in making cases against powerful climate offenders.

Binary choices

The legal battle highlights the conflict between a developing economy driven by net neutrality goals and the ecological cost of rapidly proliferating infrastructure.

The court observed: “It is not a binary choice between conservation and economic development but rather a dynamic interplay between protecting a critically endangered species and addressing the pressing global challenge of climate change.”

Notably, India’s lack of climate-specific legislation highlights the state’s responsibility to safeguard citizens from the scourge of climate-induced adversity.

In this context, the country’s top judicial body added that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of citizens and protect them from the harmful effects of climate change. Apoorva, founder of the non-profit Animal Law and Policy Network, said the impact of this judgement will be felt once the higher courts offer guidelines to the lower judiciary on how to handle specific cases.

“The court does provide certain examples of situations where it thinks that courts might be required to balance the right against adverse impacts of climate change in the future, but it does not provide any principles and/or framework that lower courts can rely on while deciding such cases,” said Apoorva, who goes by a single name.

She added: “As a result, whether this particular case will truly be a landmark decision that shapes the development of climate justice jurisprudence will heavily depend on how it is interpreted by courts in the future.”

Real-world impact

Another critical aspect lingering over the effectiveness of the verdict will be the attribution factor on how to link the harmful effects of climate change on people and substantiate with credible data to satisfy the judicial requirements.

This would gain additional significance in potential legal cases against powerful entities such as the government and corporations.

Ashish Kothari, an environmentalist and author, pointed out a few instances in which the Supreme Court’s judgement could be leveraged to mount a legal battle against violators.

He said: “[This verdict] means farmers have a right to not be impacted by changing weather patterns, or people who work outside, such as street cleaners, hawkers, and traffic police, have the right to not be impacted by extreme heat.”

Kothari added: “This right should mean holding the government accountable to take actions that can ameliorate these impacts, for instance insurance schemes for crop failure for farmers, and shelters, and cooled water provision and reduced work hours without payment reductions for those working in the open.”

But it would also mean reviewing and halting projects that further such impacts, such as big roads in the Himalayas, or thermal power stations and coal mining in central India, Kothari said.

“On its own, the government will not take such actions, so citizens will have to pressure it to, through people’s mobilisation, further court actions and constructive advice to government departments on what can be done,” he said.

India is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, and is one of Asia’s top countries for climate litigation, with citizens increasingly going to court to claim that insufficient climate action has violated their right to a healthy environment. 

More than 80 per cent of India’s population lives in areas at risk of climate-induced disasters, and the country is enduring a spell of extreme heat. However, climate change has barely registered as a political issue in the country’s recent election, which is widely expected to be won by incumbent premier Narendra Modi. 

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