Citizens have the “right against the adverse effects of climate change” as part of their constitutional rights to life and equality, the Supreme Court has ruled.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud made the statement while ruling on a petition about the need to conserve the Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican – both critically endangered bird species. The judgement was passed on March 21 and the detailed verdict was made public on April 6.

The court noted that Article 48A of the Constitution calls upon the State to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard forests and wildlife. Further, Clause (g) of Article 51A makes it a duty for citizens to protect and improve the natural environment and to have compassion for living beings, the bench emphasised.

Article 48A of the Constitution is part of the chapter on directive principles of State policy, while Article 51A is part of the chapter on fundamental duties. Neither of these provisions is thus legally enforceable.

The court, however, said these provisions indicate that the Constitution recognises the importance of the natural world.

“The importance of the environment, as indicated by these provisions, becomes a right in other parts of the Constitution,” the court said. “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.”

The Supreme Court noted that there is “no single or umbrella legislation” in India on climate change. “However, this does not mean that the people of India do not have a right against the adverse effects of climate change,” it added.

The bench further noted that the right to life is not fully realised without a clean environment that is “stable and unimpacted by the vagaries of climate change”.

The court said: “The right to health [which is a part of the right to life under Article 21] is impacted due to factors such as air pollution, shifts in vector-borne diseases, rising temperatures, droughts, shortages in food supplies due to crop failure, storms and flooding. The inability of underserved communities to adapt to climate change or cope with its effects violates the right to life as well as the right to equality.”

In recent years, several think tanks have pointed out that India is among the countries most threatened by climate change.

In February 2023, a report published by Cross Dependency Initiative, a group that works on quantifying the costs of climate change, said that nine Indian states are among the world’s top 50 regions at risk of damage to “built environment” due to climate change hazards.

Built environment refers to aspects of surroundings that are built by humans to support their activities such as homes and workplaces.

In 2022, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that India was among the most vulnerable countries to climate change and estimated that exposure to rising sea levels and changing monsoon patterns had already caused a loss of 16% of its per capita gross domestic product since 1991.

Also read: