Non profit organisations, civil society groups and individual citizens, who are motivated by the public interest, have played a decisive role in law and politics. They have democratised the process of decision making, by voicing their disagreements and alternatives on issues ranging from child rights and female genital mutilation to prisoner’s rights and right to education. Their role is not only important; but essential for the pursuit of a better regulation of law in society. International law has increasingly come to recognise this and therefore organisations like Amnesty International now have advisory status in the United Nations.
Unlike International law, the domestic law in many countries has been slow to embrace NGOs and citizens in comparison to the welcoming gestures of international law. The relevance of such entities was realised in India, however, in the early 1980s through the S.P.Gupta Case. The Court in the S.P.Gupta Case liberalised the requirements for locus standi/standing (laws regulating who can bring a legal dispute to the Court). It recognised the socio-economic challenges that faced India: the widespread poverty, illiteracy and the inaccessibility of the legal system. With this case the Supreme Court flagged off what is now called ‘Social-Action Litigation’, more commonly known as Public Interest Litigation. As a result of this judgement anyone, citizen or organisation, can bring a claim to the Indian Supreme Court for legal redress. What does all this mean for the environment? A lot.
One of the primary hurdles for environmental litigation in any legal system are restrictive standing rules. To put it simply, when you bring a problem to the court, it must involve the violation of a legally recognised right as a result of a legally recognised injury. However, unlike a stolen car, pollution of the air is not a violation of anyone’s personal right. Why? Simply because unlike the car, the air belongs to no one. As Late Supreme Court Justice Scalia would have said: What’s it to you? Therefore, in the early days of the Indian Republic, environment cases were brought only if there was some particular injury to an individual, as in cases of nuisance or tort. But why is that a problem? It is a problem because the law viewed a citizen’s interests from the perspective of private law. Therefore, if ‘it’ (in this case—air) does not belong to you, how can it bother you? These standing rules did not recognise that the abuse of the natural environment cannot be legally addressed from the view of private law.
The air does not belong to anyone, because it belongs to everyone. And, therefore, anyone and everyone should be able to bring a claim to the Court to protect and preserve the environment. As a result of this law, NGOs and public spirited citizens in India have worked towards the closing of limestone quarries, installation of environmental safeguards and closure of pollution tanneries on the river Ganges. In what was the most well known decision by the Court in India, an entire fleet of diesel-powered buses in Delhi were converted to compressed-natural gas.
But does this mean India’s environment is any better? Yes and no. While judicial decisions have been result-oriented in the Court, the conversion of diesel buses to CNG led to the significant reduction of pollution levels in India’s capital. These gains made, however, were neutralised by the rising needs of a growing economy and later Delhi pollution only became worse. Judicial intervention is crucial, but its impact is limited if other organs of state machinery are not responsive. The environmental judicial activism of the Indian Supreme Court was one such result of unresponsiveness.
The Indian Supreme Court has created an efficient avenue for addressing environmental wrongs. However, in so far as the agenda of environmental protection is preservation is concerned, the judiciary is but one participant. Without a committed government and administration these efforts will not be enough to promote sustained environmental improvements. The advantage that India has as a result of being an activist judiciary will be lost without such a collaboration The judiciary of India, however, is not waiting. It continues to prioritise environmental concerns. Just yesterday, for instance, the Court banned BS-III compliant vehicles, raising emission standards to check toxic emissions from heavy diesel vehicles. A united effort incorporating both the government and administration must utilise the increasing public support of such pro-environment decisions and contribute towards creating a better country for India, and a better planet for everyone.
Sugandha is a resident of the Indian capital of New Delhi, and a student of law at Durham University. Her love for the environment began when she came to this Northern English town, after being exposed to air she could finally breathe.
 See the role played by NGOs in human rights jurisprudence in Europe and on environmental obligations.
 The United Kingdom for instance in R. v Secretary of State for the Environment Ex p. Rose Theatre Trust Co (No.2)  1 Q.B. 504 (QBD). This does not represent the current state of the law, which has been more welcoming to citizens and organizations. See: Walton v Scottish Ministers  UKSC 44,  PTSR 51, R (ClientEarth) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2013] UKSC 25,  3 CMLR 29. However, not only has this change been drastically slow, it comes with its own uncertainties. Unlike in India, the NGOs and citizens in the UK are not guaranteed the right to judicial redress, entrenched by the Right to a healthy environment under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Furthermore, there have legislative proposals in UK which would neutralize all the progress in this regard.
 Here is a reliable summary of the case.
 While this looks like a simple explanation, the courts in the United Kingdom effectively accepted this concept only very recently in AXA and Walton
 Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v State of Uttar Pradesh (Dehradun Quarrying Case) AIR 1985 SC 652.
 M.C.Mehta v Union of India (Shriram Gas Leak Case) AIR 1987 SC 965.
 M.C.Mehta v Union of India (Ganga Pollution (Tanneries) Case) AIR 1988 SC 1037.
 Which has had dubious infamy for being the most polluted city in the world.
 M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1998) (No. 13029/1985).
 J.Mijin Cha (2005) 'A critical examination of the environmental jurisprudence of the courts of India', Albany Law Environmental Outlook Journal, p. 202.
 Rosencranz & Divan, Environment Law and Policy in India (2nd edn OUP 2002)
 See this article.