India’s top court expands right to life to include ‘adverse effects of climate change’ in landmark ruling

India’s top court expands right to life to include ‘adverse effects of climate change’ in landmark ruling

India’s Supreme Court has expanded the scope of “right to life” to include “protection against adverse effects of climate change” in a significant ruling.

The ruling recognises that climate change threatens “constitutional guarantees of equality and health”, impacting factors such as air pollution, disease, and food security.

The court has expanded the scope of the “right to life” which is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the constitution of India.

“Without a clean environment which is stable and unimpacted by the vagaries of climate change, the right to life is not fully realised,” the ruling said.

“The right to health (which is a part of the right to life under Article 21) is impacted due to factors such as air pollution, shifts in vector-borne diseases, rising temperatures, droughts, shortages in food supplies due to crop failure, storms, and flooding," the bench said.

The statement from a three-judge bench headed by chief justice DY Chandrachud came during a hearing of a petition to protect the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) and Bustard and Lesser Florican – both critically endangered bird species – from losing their habitat due to power transmission lines.

The judgment was passed on 21 March and the detailed verdict was made public on Saturday.

The court has asked for a committee to be established to determine a balance between conserving the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard and developing renewable energy infrastructure in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

“The inability of underserved communities to adapt to climate change or cope with its effects violates the right to life as well as the right to equality,” the court said.

In recent times, numerous think tanks have highlighted the significant threat of climate change to India, placing it among the countries most vulnerable to its impacts.

This vulnerability stems from various factors such as its vast population, reliance on agriculture, and exposure to extreme weather events like floods and droughts.

In 2022, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified India as one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change. It estimated that the country had already experienced a 16 per cent loss in per capita GDP since 1991 due to factors like rising sea levels and shifting monsoon patterns.