Clearer skies, fresher air, mountains and hills that became visible from rooftops after decades, crystal clear water bodies with gayly swimming ducks and dolphins; does all this not sound utopian? When and how did these things actually happen, if at all they did? Of course, how could we forget? Amongst the very few good things that the year 2020 brought with it, was the ultimate environmental restoration that humankind had ever witnessed, merely because people had had to put a hold on their incessant and outrageous exploitation of Mother Nature.
The contributions of the Industrial Revolution include but are not limited to, transportation facilitation, electricity, increased longevity of lives, better opportunities, and whatnot. The industries, with their machines and engineers and other human resources, have been coming up with mind-bogglingly creative solutions and products to cater to all kinds of consumers ever since they were first set up. However, the inevitable flip side of this is the massive environmental cost that we have had to pay ever since the ‘utilization’ of resources turned into ‘exploitation’.
HOW HAS THE ‘LEGAL WORLD’ DEALT WITH IT SO FAR?
It took us a long time to realize and accept the gravity of the situation and take affirmative action towards remedying the same. Initially, most countries did not have specific laws dedicated to dealing with environmental wrongs per se, however, the 1972 Stockholm Conference proved to be amongst the first stepping stones that led us where we are today. Environmental laws in India are not a new occurrence, however, during the last 50 years, the face and approach of legal dealings have changed considerably. For a good part of the existence of modern Indian law, environmental offences or negligence were dealt with using the provisions of ‘Public Nuisance’ of the ‘Indian Penal Code 1860’ and the ‘Code of Criminal Procedure 1973’. Specific provisions in the IPC in sections 277 and 278 prescribe punishments for contaminating water and air respectively. The incorporation of the Code of Criminal Procedure brought a more specific provision in section 133, which empowered the Magistrates to take decisions to abate Public Nuisance.
However, even in India, things changed after the 1972 United Nations, Stockholm Conference in Sweden. A wave of changes in the arena of Environmental Laws was brought about. It was widely accepted that Global Warming and Environmental degradation were a real threat to all the life forms on the face of the Earth. One of the authorities that had the potential to uphold the people’s interest and bring about impactful changes was the Legal Authority and it has done the same, time and again, by making and amending laws. After the 1992 Rio Summit, also known as the ‘Earth Summit’, a gigantic wave of environmental laws, being formulated and passed all over the globe, irrespective of whether or not those countries were major contributors or victims of global warming or not, hit us. Today, more than 170 countries have Environmental Laws in some of the other forms, in place. The fact that United Nations Human Rights Council has recognized the Right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment has provided the extra boost that lawmakers, as well as the general populace, needed after the 1992 Summit.
SITUATION AT GROUND ZERO – THE COURTS
From registering merely 800 cases from 1986 till 2914 to crossing the thousand mark within a matter of mere 6 years, that is, from 2015-2020, the situation looks promising. The numbers are proof, that not only are the people getting more aware, concerned, and willing by the day but also that the legal fraternity is doing its bit and facilitating the process. The most recent, and undoubtedly, one of the most crucial judgments of all times, when it comes to Environmental Litigation, was made by a court in Hague. The court gave a favourable judgment for an NGO called the Friends of the Earth which had sued the oil giant- Royal Dutch Shell, along with 17,000 co-plaintiffs. The case has far-reaching effects and it is in itself a worthy precedent for countless other judgments to come because this was the first time, a Judge had actually ordered a corporate entity to follow and abide by the rules of the Paris Agreement.
Every single case on the pretext of environmental damage paves way for countless other such cases being filed and justly ruled on. A lot of work is being done in order to facilitate a fair hearing to all those who have been wronged, not just a privileged few. In Germany, efforts are being made to allow people from other countries who have had to suffer due to the conduct of German Corporations, to sue them. On similar lines, the UK has already made a ruling to enable suing the parent companies for the doings of their subsidiary entities.
WHERE DO WE LACK AND WHAT COULD BE DONE?
One of the gravest mistakes, and yet, unfortunately, one of the most overlooked ones also is the fact that most of the Environmental Legislations today are majorly anthropocentric. This takes away the essence of the crime against nature and shifts the focus towards the sufferings of humans only. Consequently, any episode of environmental degradation today is mostly measured and given importance and attention to, keeping in mind the number of human lives being affected by it and the intensity of such effects. Another major issue is the absolute absence of criminal convictions, no matter how grave the environmental tragedy. For the legal fraternity to be a relevant contributor in the movement against climate change, safeguarding not only human rights but the rights of all life forms, effective, calculated, well-directed, and participatory, steps are to be taken and the laws should be legislated accordingly.
Lawyers can not only help sue giant corporations for their misdeeds against the environment but also aid and advise their clients, both individuals, and companies, on investing in greener projects and ventures. They can also facilitate the smoother transition of ventures into more eco-friendly energy sources, and so on. Laws are supposed to be passed after having done thorough research, conducting debates and discussions, and keeping the actual stakeholders. However, the lack of appropriate institutions, absence of accountability, and a dearth of honest efforts from people in charge put all these efforts down the drain. What we require today is beyond a purely legal framework to combat all the environmental issues at hand. We need specialized laws that deal with environmental laws as well as other relevant sectors at the same time. A good place to start could be with legal arenas like Tax Laws, Transportation Laws, and so on.
The humankind world over has, for a very long time now, found order in the world of chaos, by creating such societal structures that made it possible for the actions of the people to be regulated by some form of law. India too was no exception to this. The ancient Indian concept of law was known as ‘Dharma’. It advocated that a certain balance ought to be maintained between the natural world and human activities by keeping our actions in harmony with the natural order of the world and not the other way around. From barely having any specific laws to deal with environmental crimes to the recent passage of the ‘Ecocide Bill’ in France, we have come a long way. While all the efforts are praise-worthy and commendable, we must not rejoice under the illusion that the dangers of climate change are successfully dealt with. We have walked a long and difficult road, but there is much left to walk still.
Author(s) Name: Vatsala (National Law University, Odisha)
 Indian Penal Code 1860, s 277
 Indian Penal Code 1860, s 278
 Code of Criminal Procedure 1973, s 133
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