Most national constitutions include environmental provisions in the form of rights and duties. Environmental rights and the duties of the State are often in the spotlight, while another constitutional environmental provision setting out the duties of individuals (variously described) remains in the shadow. Why are environmental duties of individuals included in constitutions? What is their role? To answer these questions, I explore the origin and design of environmental duties of individuals in the Constitution of India, 1950, and related judicial practice in my paper ‘Environmental Constitutionalism and Duties of Individuals in India’ published in (2022) 34(3) Journal of Environmental Law 399-418. I highlight some of the key findings here.
An amendment in 1976 led to the insertion of environmental duties of the citizens of India in the Constitution in the form of Article 51A(g). This development can be attributed to a combination of internal and external factors.
- Internal factors: The ruling government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, wanted to strike a ‘balance’ between the rights and duties of citizens during the state of Emergency in India between 1975 and 1977.
- External factors: The first major international environmental conference, namely the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended it.
The 1976 amendment also led to the insertion of a constitutional environmental duty of the State as a Directive Principle of State Policy (DPSP) in Article 48A of the Constitution.
The wording of the environmental duties of citizens and the State in the Constitution resembles that of the Stockholm Declaration, the non-binding but influential output of the 1972 conference.
- Principle 1, Stockholm Declaration: ‘…he [man] bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.’
- Article 51A(g), Constitution: It is the fundamental duty of every citizen of India ‘to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife’.
- Article 48A, Constitution: ‘The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country’.
The justiciability of constitutional environmental duties determines whether they are capable of being decided by law or a court. While the DPSP are explicitly non-justiciable, the Constitution is silent in respect of the constitutional environmental duties of citizens.
The Constitution does not envisage a correlation between environmental rights and duties. It does not guarantee a right to environment. The first part of Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration reads: ‘Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being…’ However, the 1976 amendment did not lead to the incorporation of a similar right-focused provision into the Constitution.
The Constitution distinguishes between environmental duties of citizens and the State although both are framed as duties to protect and improve. The former relates to the natural environment specifically and the illustrative list of elements of the natural environment includes forests and wildlife. The latter includes a duty of endeavour in respect of the environment generally as well as a specific duty to safeguard forests and wildlife.
The judiciary (Supreme Court of India and High Courts) has engaged with the constitutional environmental duties of citizens in different ways. In most of these cases, the judiciary refers to the constitutional environmental duties of the State also; in other words, the constitutional environmental duties of citizens are seldom invoked in isolation.
- The judiciary has relied on constitutional environmental duties of citizens and the State to read the right to environment into the fundamental right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, and to determine the scope and limits of other constitutional rights such as the fundamental right to carry on any occupation, trade, or business (Article 19(1)(g)) and the freedom of religion (Article 25).
- The judiciary has established a link between constitutional environmental duties of citizens and the State (in a departure from the origin and design of these provisions), identified positive and negative duties of citizens and the State, and even included the State in the category of citizens. These actions may be motivated by a desire to implement non-justiciable DPSP as well as the fact that the State is the primary respondent in environmental rights litigation.
- The judiciary has expanded the scope of the constitutional environmental duties of citizens, expressly or by implication such that the corresponding right-holders include the environment and future generations. This expansion may contribute to the discourse around the right of the environment and the application of the principle of inter-generational equity. The cases involving the rights and duties of future and present generations also highlight the collective dimensions of rights and duties.
- The judiciary has been willing to engage with the procedural dimensions of constitutional environmental duties. It has directed the State to provide information about the environment, environmental laws, and the constitutional environmental duty of citizens. It has also expressed the view that citizens can perform their constitutional duty by bringing environmental issues to the judiciary’s attention, for example, via public interest environmental litigation.
The way forward
This research adds to the limited scholarship on constitutional environmental duties specifically and constitutional duties generally in India. Given the large number of constitutions that include environmental duties of individuals in some form, similar studies could enrich our understanding of environmental constitutionalism and the role of courts in other jurisdictions. This research also provides a framework for examining the scope and limits of constitutional (environmental) duties in a context where there are growing calls for environmental/climate citizenship as well as for performance of duties by individuals instead of protection of rights by the State.