Environment and Sustainable Development – A Balanced Approach -  Nayan Chand Bihani


The debate between protection of the environment and sustainable development is an age old one and is growing in proportion with every passing day all over the world, in general and specifically with respect to developing countries like India, in particular.


The Stockholm Declaration on the Human Enviornment,1972 categorically stated that man is both the creator and the moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity of intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth. In the long run and tortuous evolution of the human race on this planet a stage has been reached when through the rapid acceleration of science and technology man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale. Both aspect of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his wellbeing and to the enjoyment of basic human rights-even the right to life itself. It also states that the protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the wellbeing of peoples and economic development throughout the world, it is the urgent desire of the people of the whole world and the duty of all the Governments. The Declaration, in Principle 2, states that the natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural eco-systems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate. It further, in Principle 8, states that economic and social development is essential for ensuing a favourable living and working environment for man and for creating conditions on earth that are necessary for the improvement of the quality of life.


A milestone in this field is the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992. It, interalia, states that human beings are at the centre of concern for sustainable development and that they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. It also states that the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations. It states that in order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it and that to achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for their people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies. It contemplates that the States shall enact effective environmental legislation. Environmental standards, management objectives and priorities should reflect the environmental and developmental context to which they apply. The Declaration states that in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by the states according to their capabilities and that environmental impact assessment, as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority.


Initially, the trend was to use ‘Polluter Pays’ principle and punish the offending unit. Subsequently, vide judicial decisions, the principle of sustainable development was widely applied so as to balance the two principles.


The Polluter Pays principle talks about the liability of the polluter. With the increase in the industrial development what subsequently also increased is the waste emitted out of these industries and as a result of these wastes not only were the immediate surroundings adversely affected but also the environment at large. There is no specific definition of the Polluter Pays principle, rather it is a practice emphasising on the fact that one who pollutes the environment should be held accountable and responsible for the same with consequential steps to be taken. The principle not just focuses on punishing the polluter but its main criterion is to ensure that the polluted environment returns back to its original state. The reason behind it is to promote ‘Sustainable Development’. Thus it can be summed up that Polluter Pays principle is an essential element of sustainable development. Therefore, whosoever causes pollution to the environment will have to bear the cost of its management. The principle imposes a duty on every person to protect the natural environment from pollution or else he will be responsible for the cost of the damage caused to the environment. The main reason behind imposing a cost is two folds. Firstly,  to refrain any person from polluting the environment and secondly, if in the case there is pollution then it is the polluter’s duty to undo the damage. Hence, both of the above ensures that there should be sustainable development. It is pertinent to mention that the Polluter Pays principle is not a new concept. It was first referred to in 1972 in a Council Recommendation on Guiding Principles Concerning the International Economic Aspects of Environmental Policies of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The same is also enshrined in Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration, which states that ‘the polluter, in principle, bear the cost of pollution.’ The need of the hour is a demonstrable willingness to adhere to the essence of the principle in order to ensure that there is development, but not at the cost of causing environmental degradation.


The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Indian Council for Enviro-legal Action vs Union of India reported in LQ/SC/1996/358, interalia, putthe absolute liability upon the polluter for the harm caused to the environment.


The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs Union of India, reported in LQ/SC/1996/1368, interalia, accepted the Polluter Pays Principle as a part of the Article 21 of the Constitution of India and also emphasised Article 48A and Article 51A(g) of the Constitution of India.


The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Amarnath Shrine reported in LQ/SC/2012/1121, has categorically stated the right to live with dignity, safety and in a clean environment.Article 21 of the Constitution of India, guaranteeing the right to life is ever widening and needs to maintain proper balance between socio-economic security and protection of the environment.


The Hon’ble Apex Court in the case of Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing Co Ltd- vs – Bombay Environmental Action Group reported in LQ/SC/2006/206, interalia, states that the consideration of economic aspects by Courts cannot be one and it depends on the factors of each case. However, strict views ought to be taken in cases of town planning and user of urban land so as to balance the conflicting demands of economic development and a decent urban environment. Ecology is important but other factors are no less important and public interest will be a relevant factor.


The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Group –vs- Bombay Suburban Electricity Supply Company Ltd reported in LQ/SC/1991/157, has held that it is primary for the Government to consider importance of public projects for the betterment of the conditions of living of people on one hand and necessity for preservation of social and ecological balance, avoidance of deforestation and maintenance of purity of atmosphere and water from pollution and the role of the Courts is restricted to examine the whether the Government has taken into account all the relevant aspects and has not ignored any material condition.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Narmada BachaoAndolan vs Union of India reported in LQ/SC/2000/1509, interalia, reiterated the Polluter Pay Principle.


A milestone case is that of M C Mehta vs Union of India reported in LQ/SC/2004/397, wherein the Hon’ble Supreme Court explained the Precautionary principle and the principle of Sustainable Development. It was, interalia, stated that the development needs have to be met but a balance has to be struck between such needs and the environment. The Hon’ble Supreme Court also reiterated similar views in a series of cases, some of which are stated hereinbelow;

  1. T N GodavarmanThirumulpad (104) vs Union of India &Ors.



  1. M C Mehta vs Union of IndiaLQ/SC/2009/1231


  1. Tirpur Dyeing Factory Owners Association vs Noyyal River Ayacutdars Protection Association &Ors.LQ/SC/2009/1891 

An interesting question came up before the Hon’ble Supreme Court with regard to the setting up of nuclear power plants with regard to the possibility of considerable economic development weighed against risk of feared radiological hazard. The Hon’ble Apex Court in the case of G.Sundarrajan –vs- Union of India reported in LQ/SC/2013/536, interalia, held that the Courts will be justified to look into the aspect as to the opinions of experts and the adequacy of safety measures and will be justified to look into the safety standards being followed by the Nuclear Power Plant.


The Hon’ble Supreme Court, in the case of Lal Bahadur vs State of UP reported in LQ/SC/2017/1384, interalia, emphasised the importance of striking a balance between the two principles.


An important development is the advent of the National Green Tribunal which has the jurisdiction over all civil cases where a substantial question relating to environment (including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment) is involved and relates to the Acts specified in Schedule I, namely the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Water(Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 and the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.  The National Green Tribunal, since its inception, has been looking into the aspects of environmental pollution and the mitigation thereof.


It can thus be said that both the environment and development are essential in the modern world for the betterment and living standards of the people. However, rampant and unplanned development at the cost of the environment is not to be entertained and the Courts will keep a close watch into the aspect of sustainable development, interalia, based on the criteria and guidelines, as specified.



Nayan Chand Bihani is a practising advocate at Calcutta High Court. Mr. Bihani pursued his LL.B from the Calcutta University College of Law, Hazra  Campus and was enrolled as an Advocate in December,1998. Mr. Bihani deals mainly with Writ petitions, specially in Environmental laws, Election laws, Educational laws, Municipal laws, Service laws and Public Interest Litigations. He also represents several authorities like the West Bengal State Election Commission, the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, the State of West Bengal,  several Educational Institutions and Universities and several Municipalities and Municipal Corporations and the Odisha Pollution Control Board.  He can be contacted at nayanbihani@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The views or opinions expressed are solely of the author.

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