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Environmental Justice: Examining Legal Approaches to AddressingEnvironmental Inequality

By Eshanya Mishra

  1. Environmental Justice-

Environmental justice ensures fair treatment and meaningful participation of all individuals in governmental decisions impacting health and the environment, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or ability. It aims to shield people from disproportionate impacts, advocate for equitable access to a healthy environment, promote ecological harmony, oppose toxic production and disposal, demand fair compensation for environmental harm, support indigenous sovereignty, and encourage

education on environmental issues and conscientious consumption.

2. Understanding Environmental Inequality-

Environmental inequality, highlighted since the late 1980s, challenges the notion that environmental issues affect everyone equally. Certain groups, like the poor, working class, and people of color, bear a heavier burden of environmental hazards and have less access to green spaces compared to wealthier, white communities. This concept of disparate social impacts suggests that environmental inequality occurs when particular social groups are disproportionately located in environmentally risky neighborhoods. Health disparities among social groups stem from uneven exposure to health risks, biological vulnerability, and limited access to healthcare and resources. Activists stress that mainstream environmental groups and governments often overlook these issues, which are interconnected with broader social inequalities.

Empirical studies in India illustrate how poor and hazardous environments negatively impact marginalized communities, especially women and girls who bear the brunt of household chores and health risks associated with cooking practices. In industrial cities, working-class individuals, including lower-caste and marginalized workers, suffer from various health issues due to environmental and occupational hazards, exacerbated by inadequate protections and amenities.

3. Legal Frameworks for Addressing Environmental Justice-

"Environmental law and policy in India" encompasses constitutional provisions, international treaties, and national and state-level legislations on forests, pollution, biodiversity, climate change, and more. However, the complexity and fragmentation of these laws contribute to confusion and inefficiency.

Regulatory frameworks often prioritize clearances over environmental impact assessment, with limited monitoring and enforcement. The Sterlite Copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi and the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat exemplify the challenges. Official environmental policy lacks coherence, transparency, and global best practices, influenced by corporate interests. Environmental justice efforts face hurdles from courts, jurisdictional issues, and limited public participation. Despite resistance,

violence, and bribery, environmental protection remains inadequate. The history of environmental justice reveals systemic shortcomings, though recent citizen-led initiatives offer hope, especially in urban centers.

A.Judicial Intervention - Judicial intervention in environmental matters in India is anchored in Article 21 of the Constitution, guaranteeing the right to life and personal liberty, which includes a clean and healthy environment.

Landmark judgments, like the Sri Ram Food and Fertilizer case, established the principle of "absolute liability" for hazardous activities. The Court, through cases like Taj Mahal and Dehradun Valley, issues directives to protect iconic landmarks from pollution. It emphasizes public health by ordering the closure of polluting factories near tourist resorts. Principles of sustainable development, like the precautionary and polluter pays principles, are integral to its decisions, aiming to balance development with environmental protection. The Supreme Court's proactive stance, demonstrated through Public Interest Litigation, showcases its influential role in safeguarding India's environment.

The Stockholm Declaration of 1972 prompted India to integrate environmental protection into its constitutional framework via Articles 48-A and 51-A (g), mandating both state and citizen responsibility. Complementing these are key environmental laws like the Forest Conservation Act (1980), Water Act (1974), Wildlife Act (1972), Environment Act (1986), Air Act (1981), and others.

The Water Act prohibits harmful material entry into water sources, with the Supreme Court directing tanneries to install treatment plants in the Ganga Water Pollution case. The Air Act targets air pollution from various sources. The Environment Act, a response to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, grants powers to regulate pollution. Additional legislation provides mechanisms for compensation and appeals related to environmental incidents. Despite this legal framework, enforcement remains challenging, crucial for fulfilling India's environmental protection obligations.

4. Case Studies-

A- In Gujarat, rapid economic growth has led to significant environmental degradation, particularly impacting coastal wetlands and agriculture in areas like Mahuva taluka. Hydro dam construction has reduced downstream water flows, exacerbating water scarcity and seasonal migration. Industrial activities, including shipbreaking and limestone extraction, worsen ecological disturbances and groundwater salinity along the coastline, sparking conflicts over water allocation. Since 1985, villagers and the government have constructed bandhas in estuaries to combat salinity ingress and preserve freshwater for irrigation. While these structures benefit coastal communities, challenges persist, with a proposed fifth bandha awaiting progress in Mahuva taluka.

B- In 2008, Nirma Ltd., part of the Gujarat-based Nirma group, proposed a cement plant on land contested by villagers as a wetland. Despite opposition, it initially received clearance but faced legal challenges. An expert committee confirmed the wetland status, leading to clearance revocation. Nirma appealed, claiming unintentional misinformation. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) overturned the revocation, permitting construction. Subsequent legal battles followed, with the Supreme Court issuing an interim order halting construction pending further review.

5. Future Directions and Recommendations-

Addressing environmental injustices in India requires an intersectional justice approach, prioritizing marginalized groups like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, rural poor, urban slum dwellers, and working-class individuals. Decolonizing environmental policies is crucial for restoring land rights and promoting sustainable practices. A comprehensive agenda should focus on economic redistribution, cultural recognition, political representation, federalism, community empowerment, education, and institutional reform. Stakeholder participation is key, with dedicated environmental courts ensuring

effective enforcement of laws and swift justice.

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