Environmental rights under Article 21


Environmental rights under Article 21: The environment and human life are interrelated. The existence of life is dependent upon the harmonious relationship between the environment and the ecosystem. Livelihood, society, and culture are some basic fundamental aspects of human existence and thus, their maintenance and enhancement is a fundamental human right.

Destruction of the environment and its natural resources is a violation of the fundamental right and environmental rights under Article 21. These violations generally present themselves through lack of access to clean water and air, productive land, lack of food, health, and sanitation facilities, physical displacement, and socio-economic marginalization.

Millions of people live below the minimum levels of decent human existence. Developments that were aimed at alleviating such problems have only increased them by allowing the rich and powerful to appropriate the resources of the poor and dependent.

Environment Conservation and Nature Protection 

The constitution of India, when framed in 1950 did not present any provisions for environment conservation and protection. It was perhaps because the people involved in constructing the constitution did not view it as a significant threat and hence overlooked it. However, eventually, environment conservation and protection became the need of the hour and hence we witnessed major developments in this regard.

The first step towards ensuring the protection of Environmental rights happened with the 42nd amendment in 1976 adopted with the provisions towards the protection of forests and wildlife. It was incorporated in Part IV- Directive Principles of the State Policy – and List III – The Concurrent List – of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Consequently, the Constitution of India has now the following provisions dedicated to environment protection and conservation:

  1. Part IV: Directive Principles of State Policy (Article 48A): Protection and improvement and safeguarding of forests and wildlife: The State shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. The State ensures that people living around the forest and dependent on it are not belittled and deprived of the loss of environment and wildlife.
  2. Part IV-A: Fundamental Duties (Article 51-A):It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures. The State lays down laws relating to the establishment and maintenance of resources to ensure the Protection of the environment.
  • Seventh Schedule (Article 246) List III – Concurrent List Item no. 17: Prevention of cruelty to animals which deters people from perpetrating cruel behavior and torcher them. Some rare and vulnerable animals are preserved and are protected from poaching.
  • Item no. 17A: Forests are protected under this provision ensuring the livelihood of the people dependent on it living around it as well as protecting the natural heritage.
  • Item no. 17B: Protection of wild animals and birds which bans killing or hunting of wild animals for recreational or commercial purposes.

Article 21 is deemed as the heart of all laws which seem petty expansive and evolving to face new challenges. All the other articles in our constitution support the main theme is life and liberty embedded in Article 21. It ensures the right to life and states that no person shall be deprived of life and liberty. And hence the 2nd development towards the environment with the provisions of right to pollution-free environment is seen as a major step in recent times.

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Article 21 as a mandate for Environmental rights protection 

The gradual deterioration of the Environment could eventually endanger the life of present and future generations. Therefore, the right to life has been used in a diversified manner in India. It includes the right to survive as a species, the right to live with dignity, quality of life, the right to a good environment, and the right to livelihood. In India, these environmental rights have been implicitly recognized and upheld as constitutional rights.

The right to a healthy environment has been incorporated, directly or indirectly, into the judgments of the court. Thus, it is clear that article 21 has a vast interpretation. Therefore, any arbitrary act on the part of any state, depriving citizens of life or personal liberty would be against Article 21 of the Indian constitution.

The Judicial Precedents

The judiciary has worked on several environmental cases and upheld the right to a good environment as fundamental for life. Thus article 21 is deemed as the mandate for a life-saving environment. This article focuses on some of the landmark cases that have a bearing on the person’s right to life and right to a pollution-free environment.

Judicial Interpretation of Right to Life and Environmental rights: 

The right to a healthy environment has been implied, directly or indirectly, into the judgments of the court. For the first time, the link between environmental quality was addressed by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court in the Charan Lal Sahu Case in 1991[i], the Supreme Court interpreted the right to life guaranteed by article 21 of the Constitution to include the right to a wholesome environment.

In Shanti Star Builders vs. Narayan Totame[ii] case, the Supreme Court held that the right to life is guaranteed in a civilized society would take within its sweep the right to food, the right to clothing, the right to a decent environment, and a reasonable accommodation to live in.

In Subhash Kumar vs. State. of Bihar[iii] Case, the Supreme Court held that the right to life is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution and it includes the right to the enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of life.


Given the expansive nature of Article 21, wide interpretations have opened up scope for protection and conservation of the environment in India under the law. Although it can be critically analyzed that, the Constitution doesn’t lay direct emphasis on citizen’s right to a clean and safe environment, several groups of people have proposed amendments in the Article to recognize the right to a clean environment as a separate and independent fundamental right in the Constitution.

This includes the right to a pollution-free environment, the right to clean water, and the right to access a clean ecosystem. However, beyond the incorporation of these laws, it is imperative to humans to persevere the environment and abide by the rules. Article 21, with a vast interpretation, gives space for environmental rights, and hence it is evident that it is mandated for a life-saving environment.


This article is written by Shivani Agrawal, a 2nd-year law student at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. Through this article, the author wants to give the readers brief information on Environmental rights under Article 21.


[i] Charan Lal Sahu Etc. Etc vs Union of India And Ors(environmental rights)- 1990 AIR 1480, 1989 SCR Supl. (2) 597

[ii] M/S. Shantistar Builders vs Narayan Khimalal Totame- AIR 1990 SC 630, (1990) 92 BOMLR 145, JT 1990 (1) SC 106, 1990 (1) SCALE 86, (1990) 1 SCC 520, 1990 (1) UJ 379 SC environmental rights

[iii] Subhash Kumar vs State Of Bihar And Ors(environmental rights)- 1991 AIR 420, 1991 SCR (1) 5

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