Concept of Sustainable Development – An Indian Perspective


“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”- Mahatma Gandhi

The sustainable development is now deeply embedded   in both National and International scenario, it is a big Global problem; therefor India has also keen concern on the protection of environment, development and sustainable development. The depletion of natural sources, industrialization, and urbanization, development of science and technology and also tremendous growth of population are major threat to human survival. Ecology is common heritage for all human being the need of society increase day by day and its effect on the natural sources and environment, natural sources are limited and irrecoverable. Therefore it is a pious, moral and legal obligation and duty on Government, judiciary and citizens of India to protect, conserved and preserved the natural resources and environment with sustainable development .The Indian judiciary and Government have emerged as most important tool for promoting sustainable development with protection of environment and natural sources.

Keywords :Development, environment, natural sources, and sustainable development.


Sustainable Development is a multidimensional concept. It is widely accepted as a new policy goal to govern human life .The etymological meaning of sustainable development is any development which is on-going.  It evokes the idea of preservation and nurturing.

In simple words, it is conservation of environment and development together. Both economically and ecologically sustained development is Sustainable Development. The term indicates systematic way of planning of development.

Social, economic and environment all these components concept of sustainable development.

Origen of Concept- The term sustainable development was coined at the time of the Cocoyoc Declaration on Environment and Development in the early 1970’s. Since than it has become a trade mark  of international  organization dedicated to achieve beneficial development.

But For the first time, the doctrine of “Sustainable Development” was discussed in the Stockholm Declaration of 1972. Thereafter, in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development submitted its report, called  “Our Common Future”,  which is also known as Brundtland   G.H.Brundtland   the prime minister of Norway  chaired  the commission, where in an effort was made to link economic development and environment protection. In 1992, Rio Declaration on Environment which is regarded as a significant and a milestone set anew agenda  and Development codified the principle of Sustainable Development.

The doctrine of ‘Sustainable Development’ had come to be known in 1972 in the Stockholm declaration. It had been stated in the declaration that:

“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 wellbeing and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generation–.”

But the concept was given a definite shape in a report by world commission on environment, which was known as ‘ our common future’. This definition emanates from Our Common Future,also knownas the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs”.

The goal of which is to achieve balance/harmony between environment sustainability, economic sustainability and socio-political sustainability. To meet the challenges of continuing growth without destroying the environment, planning for sustainable development is crucial.

Principles of Sustainable Development:

There are various principles of ‘Sustainable Development’ as mentioned by the described in ‘Brundtland report’ are as follows: –

  1. a) Inter-Generational Equity: The principle talks about the right of every generation to get benefit from the natural resources. Principle 3 of the Rio declaration states that: The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations. “The main object behind the principle is to ensure that the present generation should not abuse the non-renewable resources so as to deprive the future generation of its benefit”.
  2. b) The Precautionary Principle-

This is the most important principle of ‘Sustainable Development’. Principle 15 the Rio declaration states that: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

  1. c) Polluter Pays Principle-

The Principle 16 of the Rio declaration states that ’National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment.

It is quite obvious that the object of the above principle was to make the polluter liable not only for the compensation to the victims but also for the cost of restoring of environmental degradation. Once the actor is proved to be guilty, he is liable to compensate for his act irrelevant of the fact that whether he’s involved in development process or not.

Development comes through industrialization, urbanization & science and technology which in turn the main factor behind the degradation of environment. To resolve the issue, the experts worldwide have come up with a doctrine called ‘Sustainable Development’, there must be balance between development and ecology. Sustainable Development maintains a balance between development and the environment. It promotes inter-generational equity, i.e. better quality of life for present and future generations. The benefit from development ought to be equated with the impact on the environment for such development. While development is important or in fact necessary?. The basic concept of sustainable development aims to maintain a balance between economic advancement while protecting the environment in order to meet the needs of the present as well the future generations.

The principle of 10 of Rio declaration, 1992 states that “Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”

The Constitution of India and Concept of Sustainable Development: Indian constitution  envisages specific provisions for the protection and improvement of environment . India also has credit to be the first country which made provisions for the protection and improvement of environment in its Constitution.  By way of 42nd amendment to the Constitution in year 1976, Article 48- A which specifically  deals with Environment  protection and its improvements in several environmental cases  the Indian courts also guided by the language of this Article .Article 51A (g)casts  duty  on the citizens  for protection  of environment.  Schedule VII containing the three lists clearly lays down various areas relating to environment protection upon which the centre and states can legislate. As a result of which the Indian Parliament enacted various legislations which deal with environment protection and put the idea on track of sustainable development.

Indian Parliament also passed various laws effecting and regulating the environmental issues. Legislative enactments were always with the principles of economic, social security and sustainable development.

Role of Indian Judiciary visa-vice sustainable development-

The Constitutional Mandates of Environmental Jurisprudence the role played by the Supreme Court in using the Constitutional provisions especially Article 21 in order to provide environment related justice will be evaluated. As has been pointed out by Justice Kirpal “Article 142 afforded the Supreme Court considerable power to mould its decisions in order that complete justice could be done.” 1 Hence it assumed a primal position in the Indian environmental legal system by holding that environmental degradation in a number of ways violates constitutional provisions. One of the most innovative parts of the Constitution of India is that right to enforce the fundamental rights which is itself a fundamental right under Article 32 of the Constitution. The decisions of the Supreme Court shall be binding on all lower Courts of India (Article 141 of the Constitution).Clean and healthy environment is the basic need of  human being which can be ensured with ecological balance  which has been made possible by judicial activism and foresight of  Courts of India- specially supreme court and various high courts. These judicial pronouncements have given new jurisprudence and dimension to environmental protection by adopting the doctrine of Sustainable Development.

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992): Over the years the Supreme Court and High courts have been playing pivotal role for protection of environment and sustainable development. Public interest litigation cases have been played vital role in the decision of most of the environmental cases. The Supreme Court and also various High Courts have landmark judgements for protection of environment & sustainable development and its various principles.

One of the most significant parts of the Constitution of India is that right to enforce the fundamental rights is itself a fundamental right under Article 32 of the Constitution as it has been recognised as one of the fundamental right under Article 21.

In the case of Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum v. Union of Indiathe doctrine of Sustainable Development was implemented for the first time  by the Supreme Court. The Petitioners therein had filed a petition in public interest litigation against the pollution caused by discharge of untreated effluent by the tanneries and other industries in the river Palar in the State of Tamil Nadu. In the instant case, the Supreme Court held that the precautionary principle and polluter pays principle are a part of the environmental law of India. The court also held that: “Remediation of the damaged environment is part of the process of ‘Sustainable Development’ and as such polluter is liable to pay the cost to the individual sufferers as well as the cost of reversing the damaged ecology”. The judgment marked all efforts to maintain a harmony between environment and development.

But before Vellore Citizen’s case, the Supreme Court has in many cases tried to keep the balance between ecology and development. In Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra Dehradun v. State of Uttar Pradesh, 7which was also known as Doon valley case, was the first and unique case of ecological imbalances and environmental degradation of India where issues related to environment and ecological balance was brought up. Two orders were given by the Court one in 1985 and the other in 1987 in which the Supreme Court It is a social obligation and let us remind every Indian citizen that it is his fundamental duty as enshrined in Article 51 A (g) of the Constitution.” highlighted the fact that India citizens have the fundamental of protecting the environment under Article 51A (g).

Dispute arose over lime mining in the Shivalik hilly areas. The Supreme Court after much investigation, ordered the stopping of mining work and held that this would undoubtedly cause hardship to them, but it I s a price that has to be paid for protecting and safeguarding the right of the people to live in healthy environment with minimal disturbance of ecological balance and without avoidable hazard to them and to their cattle, homes and agricultural land and undue affection of air, water and environment.”

After that, the Supreme Court interpreted and implemented the doctrine of Sustainable Development thatin Narmada Bachao Andolan vs. Union of Indiaobserved that “Sustainable Development means what type or extent of development can take place, which can be sustained by nature or ecology with or without mitigation”.

In T.N. Godavaraman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court said “as a matter of preface, we may state that adherence to the principle of Sustainable Development is now a constitutional requirement. How much damage to the environment and ecology has got to be decided on the facts of each case. In Indian Council of Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India, the Apex Court held: “while economic development should not be allowed to take place at the cost of ecology or by causing widespread environment destruction and violation; at the same time, the necessity to preserve ecology and environment should not hamper economic and other developments“. Hence, importance has been given both to development and environment and the quest is to maintain a fine balance between environment and economic development.

The Supreme Court of India emphasised on the need to set up specialised environment courts for the effective and expeditious disposal of cases involving environmental issues, since the right to healthy environment has been construed as a part of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The first case that can be discussed in respect to the Courts interpretation of Article 21 is MC Mehta v Union of India or the Oleum Gas Leak Case. A writ was filed under Article 32 on the event of leakage of Oleum gas from one of the units Shri Ram Foods and Fertilizers Industries. The primary issue dealt with in this case was the scope of Article 21 and 32 of the Constitution. And application for enforcement of right to life a “hyper-technical” approach cannot be adopted which would defeat the goal of justice. “Right to life means a life of dignity to be lived in proper environment free from danger of diseases or infections. In this case Supreme Court established the rule of absolute liability and held that if any damage is caused due to hazardous or dangerous   activity than the sufferer is liable to be compensated. Further, the Court also observed that the claim for compensation under Article 21 is sustainable. In respect to Article 32 the Court observed that the ambit of Article 32 is extremely broad and it allows the Courts to force new remedies and to formulae new strategies to enforce fundamental right

The case Chhetriya Mukti Sangharsh Samiti v State of UP was one of the earliest cases where the right to environment was linked to right to life.  In this case the Supreme Court unequivocally held that “every citizen has a fundamental right to have the enjoyment of quality of life and living as contemplated by Article 21 of the Constitution. Anything which endangers or impairs by conduct of anybody either in violation or degradation of laws, the quality of life or living of people is entitled to be taken recourse of Article 32 of the Constitution’.

Another noteworthy case that can be mentioned is Indian Council for The Indian Environ-Legal Action v Union of India.  In this case writ was filed under Article 32 on behalf of villagers alleging that dangerous chemicals were being emitted by private companies and this violated the right to life of the villagers. The Court found that the sludge released by the companies was toxic in nature and it made the water in the wells and streams unfit for human consumption. The Court held in this instant case that if Companies flagrantly violated the right to life of individuals then the Court has a right under Article 32 of the Constitution to intervene to protect the right to life and liberty of the citizens.

Similarly, in Subhash Kumar v. State of BiharThe Supreme Courtobserved that “The right to life is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution, and it includes the right of enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of life. If anything endangers or impairs that quality of life in derogation of laws, a citizen has the right to have recourse to Article 32 of the Constitution…”

Another important judgment that has to be discussed in this regard is MC Mehta v Union of India,  In this case it was alleged that the foundries, and hazardous industries as well as refineries in Mathura where emitting sulphur dioxide which when combined with oxygen in the presence of atmospheric moisture was transformed into sulphuric acid or acid rain which was corroding the marbles of the Taj Mahal. A PIL was filed accordingly and it was further contended that refinery emissions, vehicular traffic, etc. polluted the ambient air around the Taj Trapezium (TTZ). The Supreme Court held that the emissions resulted in the violation of the right to life of people living in the TTZ and also damaged a prestigious monument like the Taj.

The Supreme Court in Samatha v State of Andhra Pradesh, held thatIt is the duty to ensure that the industry or enterprise do not denude the forest to become menace to human existence nor a source to destroy flora and fauna and biodiversity.

In Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing Co. Ltd v. Bombay  Environmental Action Group, The Supreme Court observed  that  with major  threats  to environment  such as climate change , global warming etc.;  the need to protect  the environment has become priority, at the same time  it is also nessasury  to promote development , so much  so that it has become  the most significant and local point  of environment  legislation  and judicial decision relating to the same .

Similarly, the apex court inAmarnath Shrine, in Re vs. Union of India and Others, explained that the doctrine of Sustainable Development and precautionary principle have been applied where development was necessary, but not at the cost of environment” appropriate balance  between the various activities of the states very foundation of socio- economic security and proper environment of the right to life. “And this balance to be made by the courts to ensure the protection of environment and forests.

The Indian Government and Indian judiciary, both are playing vital role in developing the principle of sustainable development by protecting, preserving, and conserving the environment and natural sources. Article 21. Right to clean and healthy environment has been interpreted as a part and parcel of right to dignified life of people of India by the Indian judiciary specially our apex court.

Indian judiciary is playing very pivotal role to make safe environment and bring an equilibrium between ecology and sustainable development.

A lot has been done legally and judicially to protect environment, but still we are lacking far behind from our goal.Preservation and protection of the environment and keeping the ecological balance unaffected is a mission which is not only for Governments and judiciary but also for every citizen of India, it is a pious, social ,moral and legal obligation on every Indian citizens,  it is also their fundamental duty as enshrined in Article 51 A (g) of the Indian  Constitution.  It is an opportunity to come together and achieve the goal of” Sustainable Development “as envisaged by the U.N. Millennium Goals of 2000and declared by the Rio de Janeiro- Submit on Sustainable Development (1992,2012), the Johannesburg Conference on Sustainable Development (2002) .

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