[7 May 2024] The Hindu Op-ed: A half-hearted climate change verdict

Mains PYQ Relevance: 
Q) ‘Clean energy is the order of the day.’ Describe briefly India’s changing policy towards climate change in various international fora in the context of geopolitics. (UPSC IAS/2022)
Q) Does the right to a clean environment entail legal regulation on burning crackers during Diwali? Discuss in the light of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and judgments of the apex in this regard. (UPSC IAS/2015)
Q) Starting from inventing the ‘basic structure’ doctrine, the judiciary has played a highly proactive role in ensuring that India develops into a thriving democracy. In light of the statement, evaluate the role played by judicial activism in achieving the ideals of democracy. (UPSC IAS/2014)

Which of the following are regarded as the main features of the “Rule of Law”?  (UPSC IAS/2018)
1) Limitation of powers
2) Equality before law
3) People’s responsibility to the Government
4) Liberty and civil rights
Select the correct answer using the codes given below:
(a) 1 and 3 only (b) 2 and 4 only (c) 1, 2 and 4 only (d) 1, 2, 3 and 4


Prelims:  Rights to Life (Article 21) and Equality (Article 14); Right to be free of ill effects;

Mains: Judiciary on Environment and Climate Change;

Mentor comments: “Vidya dadati Vinayam” is an ancient Sanskrit phrase meaning knowledge leads to happiness. India is an important piece of the global climate puzzle. It houses close to twenty percent of the world’s population, 2.4% of the world’s land area, and 7%–8% of all recorded species, including over 45,000 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals. A significant responsibility of the fate of India rests on how the Indian Judiciary deals with the increasing climate change-related cases. Now, recently the SC in M K Ranjitsinh & Ors. vs. Union of India & Ors. case ruled that the people have a right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change which should be recognised by Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution. This judgement comes with its own set of challenges that we need to consider.

Let’s learn

Why in the News?

The Supreme Court of India’s extension of Constitutional Rights to Life and Equality to include protection from Climate Change offers hope after the ecological crisis.

Previous 2021 judgment:

The SC had directed the installation of bird diverters on existing overhead power lines and the undergrounding of power lines in the GIB’s priority habitat areas.

The 2024 order:  The SC acknowledged the practical challenges raised by the government and renewable energy companies in implementing the blanket ban on overhead power lines.
The SC lifted the ban on overhead power lines for 77,000 sq km but upheld it for a 13,000 sq km core habitat area of the GIB.

Formation of Expert Committee: The SC constituted a 7-member expert committee which is tasked with suggesting conservation measures for endangered GIB by identifying areas where power lines can be constructed and exploring the alternatives for their protection.

The committee has to submit its report to the SC by July 31, 2024, after which the court will take a final decision on the way forward.

Limitations with present order: 

To meet India’s climate commitments declared at COP 26 (2021), it includes net zero carbon emissions by 2070, generation of 500 GW by non-fossil fuel sources and a 50% share of total power generation to renewable energy by 2030. However, it comes with certain challenges as follows:

  • Inclusion of Problematic Energy Sources: The judgment includes large hydropower and nuclear plants in ‘non-fossil-fuel‘ and ‘renewable’ energy, which have significant negative impacts, the Mega-dams in the Himalayas can cause destabilization, biodiversity loss, and community displacement.
  • Adverse Impacts of Mega-Renewable Projects: The Court has tried to balance the need for land (and airspace) for solar and wind energy production in Rajasthan and Gujarat, with the imperative of protecting the Great Indian Bustard.
    • Large solar and wind projects have significant negative impacts, Pavagada Solar Park (Karnataka) took away grazing and agricultural land and destroyed wildlife.
  • Lack of Environmental Assessment and Clearance: Renewable energy projects are excluded from Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and clearance procedures, so their impacts are not assessed.
  • Continued Investment in Coal: Despite significant investment in renewable energy, the government is not reducing investments in coal. The new coal mining blocks continue to be given a green signal, including in biologically diverse and socially sensitive areas.

Alternatives should have been considered:

  • Decentralized Renewable Energy Sources: The Rooftop and Decentralized Renewable Energy sources could yield over 600 GW, offering a more sustainable alternative to mega-projects. They have already benefited millions in Indian villages, aligning with provisions for Equality and a Clean Environment.
  • Efficient Energy Use and Demand Management: Questions should be raised about energy wastage in transmission, inefficient appliance use, and luxury consumption. Demand management and power redistribution could address energy needs more effectively, reducing the necessity for new power production.
  • Rights of Nature and Earth Jurisprudence: The Court could have considered the growing global movement recognizing the ‘Rights of Nature’, crucial for just climate action. Recognition of the rights of rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna could serve as a model to safeguard nature and habitats against climate-damaging actions.
  • Incorporating Expert Committee Mandate: The Court could enhance the judgment’s impact by tasking the expert committee to explore alternative, less damaging ways of meeting energy demands, including decentralized renewables and reducing waste/luxury consumption.
Flaws in the Indian Development Model

India’s development model heavily relies on mega-industrial, infrastructural, and extractive projects that cause deforestation and displacement of communities, violating constitutional rights.

The government’s proposal to deforest 130 sq. km of rainforest and take up tribal lands in Great Nicobar violates the Court’s observation of protecting indigenous communities’ traditional lives and cultures.

Way Forward – Need for Transformative Change Organically:

  • If the Court had taken its observations to their logical conclusion, it could have directed the government to re-examine such destructive projects. This could have provided grounds for a fundamental shift towards real sustainability and justice in tackling climate change.
  • However, the judgment has reinforced the ecologically flawed, undemocratic, and socially disruptive path promoted by the Government of India.
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