Author: Richa Rajpal, B.A.,LL.B, LL.M Advocate
Recently, Justice S. Srimathy of Madurai Bench of Madras High Court has given a verdict with regard to mother nature by invoking the parens patriae jurisdiction and declared that mother nature is a living being and having the status of a legal entity.
In law, parens patriae jurisdiction refers to the State's ability to intervene against an abusive or negligent parent, legal guardian, or informal caretaker, and to act as the parent of any child or individual who requires protection. The same principle has been applied by hon’ble court where it has accorded to nature the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to ensure the preservation and conservation of the environment.
The court stated that humanity should not harm nature in the name of sustainable development. It is not sustainable development but sustainable destruction if sustainable development destroys biodiversity and resources. 'Sustainable development,' 'polluter pays,' and 'the precautionary principle' will no longer be permitted.
Facts of the Case
The Madurai bench of the High Court, in its recent order on a petition filed by a former tahsildar-level officer, has made the observation giving special importance to the conservation of nature. Disciplinary action was taken against the officer for allotting a part of the classified government land in the name of some people. He had filed an appeal in the high court to cancel the same.
During the hearing on a petition filed by the officer named A Periyakarupan, who is a resident of Theni, the court said that indiscriminate destruction of nature would create many complications in the ecosystem and endanger the existence of flora and fauna. Periyakarupan was given forced retirement. Justice S. Sreemathi also referred to an earlier judgment of the Nainital High Court in which the court had declared the glacier, including the Gangotri and the Yamunotri rivers, as legal entities to preserve it according to parens patriae jurisdiction.
The court further said, “The past generations have handed over ‘Mother Earth’ to us in its pristine glory and we are morally bound to hand over the same in a similar fashion to the next generation. ‘Mother Nature’ is accorded the rights akin to fundamental rights, legal rights, constitutional rights for its survival, safety, sustenance, and resurgence in order to maintain its status and also to promote its health and well-being.”
Probable Changes that the Verdict Brings
Fundamental Rights: Since the environment is accorded the status of a legal person, nature will also have certain fundamental rights. The most important fundamental right which will be helpful in preserving the environment is Article 21 i.e. right to life. It means that humans can not unreasonably exhaust natural resources so much that nothing is left to give to younger generations.
Other Legal Rights: Environment will have other legal rights like right to sue , right to seek remedies.
Well-being: These rights when enforced will ensure the safety, sustenance and resurgence in order to maintain its status and will also promote its health and well-being.
Machinery for the Rights to be Ensured
Directions will be given to the central and state governments by the Court for the same.
Any informed or concerned citizen can file a public interest litigation and inform the court about any instances of violation and accordingly the court can give ddirections.
The Courts can take suo moto cognizance of such cases of violation because of the obvious reason that the environment cannot represent itself in a court of law on its own.
Provisions in DPSP and Fundamental Duties
Article 48 of the Constitution of India is one of the Directive Principles which directs the state to make efforts for banning animal slaughtering of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle. It further states to organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines.
Article 51A provides that it is the duty of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.
In 2017, first such kind of verdict was pronounced by the Uttarakhand High Court when legal status was accorded to two important rivers of India i.e. Gangotri and Yamunotri and glaciers originating from them.
The same High Court gave another similar verdict in 2018 where the entire animal kingdom in the state was accorded legal status. (Narayan Dutt Bhatt vs Union of India).
The Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2020 accorded legal entity status to Sukhna lake.
These rights-based laws granting legal personhood for nature aim to shift the legal status of the natural world from being human property to living entities in their own right and subjects of law. This guarantees their right to exist, thrive, evolve and maintain their natural cycles. These rights are not conferred by humans; it is a recognition that these rights have always existed. It lays upon humans the duty to act as guardians for the more-than-human world.