Scroll Top

ENVIRONMENT AS A LEGAL ENTITY

INTRODUCTION

An entity other than a natural being that the law considers capable of having rights and duties typically accorded to human beings only is known as a legal personality or a juristic personality. The rights granted might range from a small number of legal rights that the granting body considers essential to the entity’s operation to a wide range of fundamental rights that safeguard the entity in every area.

ENVIRONMENTAL PERSONHOOD

Salmond in his book Jurisprudence defines a legal entity as, “any subject matter other than a human being to which the law attributes personality. This extension for good and sufficient reasons of the concept of a personality beyond the class of human beings is one of the most noteworthy feats of the legal imagination.”[1]

The question of environmental personhood comes from Christopher D. Stone’s work on the topic “Should trees have standing? Towards legal rights for natural objects”[2] and Justice William Doughlas’ dissenting judgement in the Sierra Club v. Morton[3], 1972 US Supreme Court. His dissent was based on providing the status of locus standi to environment, before the court of law for their own protection and preservation.

LEGAL PROVISIONS AVAILABLE IN INDIA

So far in India there are no provisions for nature’s rights from the legislative’s side, the discussions and progress seen today derive their genesis from the judicial pronouncements. In the case of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India[4], the apex court asserted that in order to protect the environment from further degradation, there must be a shift from the anthropocentric perspective to an eco-centric perspective. Anthropocentrism emphasises valuing nature in light of the advantages and benefits it can offer people. Ecocentrism, however, encourages valuing nature for its own inherent value. The Apex Court again asserted that Article 21 of the Constitution of India[5] can be extended to non-human things in the case of the Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja.[6] In 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court in the case of Mohd. Salim v. State of Uttarakhand[7] and Lalit Miglani v. State of Uttarakhand[8] ruled that the two rivers running from the state i.e., Yamunotri and Gangotri to be legal entities and must have all rights and duties that are applicable to humans to protect the rivers from further degradation.

 In A Periakaruppan v. The Principal Secretary,[9] a retired man tried to transfer away protected land. The presiding court used the notion of Parens Patriae (Parent of the Nation) since there was no one to represent and defend the land. This idea in law refers to the right of the state to interfere when a vulnerable member of society, such as a child, is not given the protection he or she deserves by the parents. While nature is not a kid, its fragility was highlighted in this case when the court stated that if nature has no one to protect it, the country must step in and do so, just as it would for a vulnerable person. By invoking the idea, the court emphasised the need of maintaining nature in the same way that our forefathers in India did. She (the judge) did not leave it there. She defined nature as “she is grasping for breath” and so must be granted “constitutional rights” that may be exercised by a human. As a result, nature was granted the same rights as humans.

RIGHT TO CLEAN AND HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT: A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT

United Nations on 22nd July 2022 made a historic move by declaring living in a healthy environment as a Human Right.[10] Though it is a much-appreciated move, it lacks behind in two perspectives, first, it isn’t legally binding on the member nations; second, the provision is anthropocentric and not eco-centric. Looking at the environment as a support to humans makes it more viable to depletion as it is now, if we start seeing it as a person then the harm done would be rather seen as a crime. Sustainability is a must because of the way we have been using natural resources for the past 100 years, it is very difficult to reserve them for the next generations, so much so that the very existence of humans on the Earth will become questionable. Hence, not just at the national level but at the international level there must be such laws that look environment as a legal entity.

When an innovation is sought in an established paradigm of law or jurisprudence, considerable skepticism and doubts arise. Giving mother nature legal individuality is no exception. Though the concept of endowing the environment with legal individuality is a niche topic, there have been instances of nature’s rights being recognised. The Ecuadorian Constitution, Chapter 7, Articles 71 to 74[11], outline the rights of nature, such as the right to integral respect for its existence, the right to be restored, and so on.

There are certainly other nations and cities that have recognised the legal right to the environment. The United States is one of the first countries that established natural rights and successfully implemented them in their legal systems. Other countries that have identified natural rights are Bolivia, New Zealand and the most recent being Panama, which identified natural rights in 2022.[12]

The nations mentioned above are excellent illustrations of how environmental legislation should prioritise the protection of nature over the profit of man. However, the public rhetoric and arguments around the move from anthropocentric to ecocentric environmental legislation that provides legal personality rights to nature are, at best, intrinsically flawed. Is legal personhood truly an essential state that nature must have before we can appreciate and defend it? A major debate put forth against the identification of the environment as a separate legal entity is the problem of property ownership. Is it not also true, if we view nature as a person, that man may not possess nature in the form of land and dwellings, or have riparian rights over it? If we take it a step further, no one would be allowed to possess anything linked to nature.

CONCLUSION

Nature as a person, on the other hand, does not always mean that men who control it are asserting supremacy over it. They might be viewed as caretakers, similar to a “trustee for nature.” Nature, in truth, does not require formal personhood rights at all. Men who choose not to safeguard it end up injuring themselves. Finally, when all other things in this world are considered, nature is more valuable than man.

The impacts of climate change are faced by all and the major setback falls on the deprived and poor population. Humans derive their whole existence from nature; if nature is degrading then the burden and problems humans face are inevitable. Judicial pronouncements are not enough to address the issue as long as the legislation doesn’t take a clear stand on it and provides a proper statute, the depletion is going to continue. Even after the statutory provisions that are already present, there are cases reported on the crisis and not much is done regarding the same. Hence, there must be a provision under the grundnome of India such that the environment gets all the benefits and is protected and presumed from further exploitations.

Author(s) Name: Antara Mandal (CHRIST (DEEMED TO BE UNIVERSITY) DELHI NCR)

[1] John William Salmond, Jurisprudence (5th ed., Stevens & Haynes 1916) 272

[2] Christopher D. Stone, Should Trees Have Standing (3rd ed., OUP USA 2010)

[3] Sierra Club v Morton (1972) 405 US 727

[4] T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad v Union of India & Ors. (1997) 2 SCC 267

[5] Constitution of India 1950, art. 21

[6] Animal Welfare Board of India v A. Nagaraja (2014) (6) SCALE 468

[7] Mohd. Salim v State of Uttarakhand (2017) SCC Utt 367

[8] Lalit Miglani v State of Uttarakhand (2015) Writ Petition No. 140/2015

[9] A Periakaruppan v The Principal Secretary (2013)  Writ Petition No. 18636/2013

[10] Moustapha Kamal Gueye and Tim de Meyer, ‘UN General Assembly recognizes human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment’ (International Labour Organization, 29 September 2022) <https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_857164/lang–en/index.htm#:~:text=This%20reality%20was%20recognized%20by,been%20a%20long%20time%20coming> accessed 27 July 2023

[11] Constitution of Ecuador 2008, art 71 to art 74  

[12] Shanthi Van Zeebroeck, ‘Nature Rights: What Countries Grant Legal Personhood Status to Nature and Why?’ (Earth, 06 October 2022) <https://earth.org/nature-rights/> accessed 27 July 2023