Citizens Have ‘Right Against Climate Change’ Says SC: What Does It Mean for You?

Indians have a right to be “free from the adverse effects of climate change”, the Supreme Court recently ruled.

Climate Change
4 min read
Hindi Female

Indians have a right to be “free from the adverse effects of climate change” under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court recently ruled.

The three-judge bench of the apex court – comprising the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra – was hearing a writ petition filed by conservationist MK Ranjitsinh regarding the conservation of two endangered species of birds, the Great Indian Bustard and the Lesser Florican.

In the past as well, the top court has held that citizens have the right to a clean environment and clean air under the fundamental right to life and the right to equality.

So why is the SC’s ruling for a “right against climate change” making headlines now? The Quint explains.

‘Right to a Clean Environment, Against the Adverse Effects of Climate Change’: What the Court Said

First, here’s a lowdown of what the apex court said.

The petitioner in the case was seeking that an “emergency response plan” be implemented to protect the Bustard.

In the judgment, the bench ruled:

“Despite governmental policy and rules and regulations recognising the adverse effects of climate change and seeking to combat it, there is no single or umbrella legislation in India which relates to climate change and the attendant concerns. However, this does not mean that the people of India do not have a right against the adverse effects of climate change. Although these are not justiciable provisions of the Constitution, they are indications that the Constitution recognises the importance of the natural world.”

"Article 21 recognises the right to life and personal liberty while Article 14 indicates that all persons shall have equality before law and the equal protection of laws. These articles are important sources of the right to a clean environment and the right against the adverse effects of climate change."
Supreme Court Bench

According to climate experts, this observation by the top court is significant because it stretches the role of climate change mitigation beyond just ecological conservation. It's now a matter of climate justice and fundamental human rights.


‘Address Climate Impacts Through the Lens of Rights’: Why This Ruling Matters

The court also said, “Without a clean environment which is stable and unimpacted by the vagaries of climate change, the right to life is not fully realised.”

Adding to its point, the three-judge bench highlighted that climate changes impacts a lot of aspects of the lay person’s life, and thus, also breaches the many rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution:

  • Right to health and water 

  • Right to equality

  • Right to housing and livelihood 

  • Right to personality integrity

  • Other rights such as “information, expression, association, and participation”

What the court pointed to was how issues like pollution, increasing temperatures, extreme weather events, lack of food security, crop failure, droughts, floods, etc, which are becoming more and more commonplace each year are leading to growing inequality and infringement of people's basic rights.

The court also mentioned that there are certain sections of society that become all the more vulnerable to climate change, which once again breaches their right to equality. These groups include the poorer communities, forest dwellers, tribal and indigenous communities. 

These groups are not just at the risk of losing their homes, but also their culture, said the court, adding that it is “inextricably intertwined with the places they live in and the resources of that place.”

“Unequal energy access disproportionately affects women and girls due to their gender roles and responsibilities such as through time spent on domestic chores and unpaid care work.”
Supreme Court Bench
Speaking to The Quint for another story, Abinash Mohanty, Sector Head, Climate Change & Sustainability at IPE Global, and Expert Reviewer of IPCC- AR(6), had said, "Due to warmer temperatures, extreme weather events get compounded, not only in their intensity, but as a cascading effect. The livelihood of many gets impacted more and more each day as agriculture, food production, and food security become more at risk."

This ruling gives weight to what data and climate experts have repeatedly said over the years.

Between February 2023-January 2024, the world breached the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature threshold for an entire year, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service stated. 

2023 has already been noted as one of the warmest years in history.

According to the 2020 World Air Quality Report, released by IQAir, as many as 22 Indian cities featured in the list of the top 30 most polluted cities globally.

In 2019, over 1,16,000 infants in India died due to air pollution within a month of being born, according to the State of Global Air report from 2020.

The apex court’s verdict, therefore, highlights the need for policy changes, and more importantly, for policy action to take place, with the same urgency one would extend to matters of civil rights.

The supreme court’s judgment underscores that states need to “address climate impacts through the lens of rights, and ensure that all individuals have the necessary capacity to adapt to the climate crisis.”

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:   Supreme Court   Climate Change 

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