SC gives shape to new climate jurisprudence

Supreme Court's landmark judgment on endangered species expands to climate justice framework, emphasizing citizens' rights against climate change impacts.
Supreme Court of India
Supreme Court of IndiaFile Photo | PTI

The Supreme Court judgement on the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican, two critically endangered species, will go down as a landmark in more ways than one. Moving well beyond the protection of birds in the M K Ranjitsinh case, the top court has gone on to create an architecture for climate justice in the country. The bench, led by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and comprising justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, held that citizens have a right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change, which it said flows from Articles 21 (right to life and personal liberty) and 14 (right to equality before law) of the Constitution.

The SC recognised the bouquet of existing laws and policies towards clean environment and its protection, as well as measures to combat climate change, but felt that the people’s rights to be free from the adverse impacts of climate change had not been articulated yet. “As the havoc caused by climate change increases year by year, it becomes necessary to articulate this as a distinct right. It is recognised by Articles 14 and 21,” the top court observed.

The SC expanded the premise of conservation of the two vulnerable species from overhead power transmission lines to a far bigger canvas. It examined human rights in the context of climate change, how it can present diverse challenges to different geographies, leading to increased suffering for poorer communities, impacting their right to equality and affecting gender justice.

The court elucidated how climate change may impact the constitutional guarantee of the right to equality. CJI Chandrachud kept in perspective India’s international obligations, its climate commitments to emission reduction and the greater need for switching to renewable energy. More significantly, the verdict addressed the conventional narrative of conflict between development and environment, saying, “It is not a binary choice between conservation and development, but rather a dynamic interplay between protecting a critically endangered species and addressing the pressing global challenge of climate change.”

Pondering over the future, the top court also looked at climate change litigations in a global context. In doing so, it has not only focused on the larger interests of the country and its people in view of the imminent impact of climate change, but also set the path for the future of climate jurisprudence in India.

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The New Indian Express