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The Four Fundamental Principles of Environmental Law

It is upsetting to observe how the ecology and ecosystem have suffered in a culture that prioritizes commerce. Ecological equilibrium is well recognized to be destroyed by study, but policies and their practical implementation should never be assumed to make this destruction irreversible.

The agenda that directs every government and policymaker in India is the main problem. This was something we saw firsthand when, in the thick of the pandemic, the EIA Policy was hastily written. In the end, none of us would gain anything if they allowed the ecosystem to be destroyed for future generations. 

In order to stop all these anti-environmental behaviors as described above, the Indian court and other judiciaries around the world have regularly reviewed rules and regulations based on a few environmental law concepts.


Let’s start by talking about the many guiding principles of environmental legislation. Here are a few examples:

Principle of public trust doctrine

What is the message of the doctrine? The basic tenet of this concept is that the state is the trustee and the beneficiaries are the citizens of the country. So, the state as trustee is given some duty as a result of this presumption. This means that the state has a responsibility to protect the ecology and environment inside its borders on behalf of the citizens that live there. The court will initially assume that the state has a responsibility to protect the environment when the justice cites this.

The Indian judiciary has used this common law principle in a variety of circumstances. In addition, independent of such theories, the state is required to improve the environment by Article 48A of the Indian Constitution. As natural resources are by their very nature designed for use by the general public and the environment, the state is the trustee of all of them.

According to the public trust theory developed by the court in the Kamal Nath case. Here, the public benefits from natural resources and economically susceptible territories, hence the state, as a body with obligations, shouldn’t go against those commitments by giving them to private parties. The court’s ultimate goal is to enable the state’s constitutional rights and establish the state as the legitimate owner of natural resources.

Polluter pays principle

The polluter pays principle, as its name suggests, requires the polluting entity to pay for both compensating the victims of the pollution and rectifying environmental damage. According to the polluter-pays principle, a manufacturer that pollutes and degrades a river is also accountable for reversing the degradation and is obligated to pay any victims who may be present or the local community.

It was decided in the 1992 Rio Declaration that nations should be required to ensure that costs are internationalized throughout the world because doing so would ultimately require multinational corporations, etc. to pay the costs of pollution while also being aware that they must protect the public interest while engaging in international trade and commerce. 

In Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India and Ors (1996), the “Polluter Pays” principle was acknowledged and interpreted to imply that the absolute responsibility for the impact on the environment extends beyond just financial compensation and includes the cost of reversing the degradation that has occurred.

The Polluter Pays principle relating to the relocation of companies was used with a directive to those relocated industries to pay 25% of the cost of land in the M.C. Mehta v. Union of India & Ors (Calcutta Tanneries Case). Those who failed to cover the land’s cost were told to be shut down. In order to establish wastewater treatment plants, the Supreme Court once more turned to the instructions previously granted in the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum.

It is important to note that, according to a rigorous interpretation of the Polluter Pays principle, the polluter is accountable for both the expenses of pollution control methods and any additional costs that result from the pollution itself and any overall environmental degradation. In general, the polluter is responsible for

  • The price of reducing pollution.
  • The price of environmental restoration.
  • The price of any compensation for sufferers of pollution-related damages.

Precautionary principle

Let’s look at the importance of the Rio Declaration’s precautionary principles. The following is outlined in Principle 15 of the 1992 Declaration:

“The precautionary principle must generally be applied by states in accordance with their capacity to protect the environment. When there are risks of substantial or irreparable harm, lack of complete scientific information cannot be an excuse for postponing economically sensible actions to prevent environmental degradation.”

If there are any significant risks or irreversible loss, all states should adopt specific measures that are cost-effective in stopping environmental deterioration. It is essentially a preventive measure premise compared to other ideas. In the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum case, which involved Indian legal precedent, the Supreme Court analyzed and decided that the precautionary principle is a component of both environmental law and the rule of law.

Principle of sustainable development

Another new concept in the current context is sustainable development. According to the Rio Declaration and other agreements, environmental conservation becomes essential for achieving sustainable development. In a number of cases, the Indian judiciary has also decided that environmental economics must serve as the cornerstone for achieving sustainable development and defending human rights. While considering environmental law and the advancement of both ecosystem and human development, Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is most usually quoted.

The Supreme Court stated in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India that “environmental development and conservation are not mutually exclusive. If it is possible to carry out development activity using the principles of sustainable development without endangering the environment or minimizing adverse effects thereon by implementing strict safeguards, then development must continue in that situation because one cannot ignore the need to develop industries, projects, etc., including the need to increase employment opportunities and the generation of revenue. There needs to be equilibrium. 

The actions done by each nation in the world have been severely questioned by a recent UN IPCC assessment on climate change. Did we forget to assign blame to the industrialized nations that exploited the planet to the utmost extent and are now pleading with the rest of the world to utilize less coal and mineral resources? These ideas would be rather detrimental to poor nations because they also form part of the 1992 Rio Declaration, which requires them to devote some of their resources to promotion.

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Aayushi Chopra
Aayushi Chopra
Aayushi Chopra is a law student who is interested in creating content on education, lifestyle, law, health, and environment. She enjoys researching different topics and then expressing her views on them.

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