Was 2013 –A turning point for corporates and citizens alike?
Co-written by Lena Fuldauer and Larissa Prevett
What makes us enjoy life? Is it the people surrounding us, the things we do or maybe the material things we own? It’s probably a mix of all of these and many other factors. But it is not only about the human environment; the extent to which we enjoy life is also affected by the natural environment without which all of those things mentioned would not be possible. We cannot enjoy life if our environment does not allow us to satisfy our needs. Does this mean that perhaps the protection and preservation of the environment is a prerequisite for fulfilling the right to life?
This is exactly what the Supreme Court in India recognised in the 1980s, prompted in particular by the adverse consequences of the Bhopal gas tragedy, a gas leak deemed one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. The Indian Constitution from 1950 does not expressly reference the right to a clean environment, and until after the Bhopal disaster the Constitution and its interpretation demonstrated a myopic attitude towards the environment in the country. However, the environmental activism which arose following the aftermath of the tragic event in part lead the Supreme Court to creatively interpret Article 21 of the Indian Constitution on the protection of life and personal liberty to include the right to a clean environment.
As a consequence of the loss of life, the right to a pollution free environment became recognised as implicit in Article 21.
But this was not the only time when the Judiciary applied Article 21 creatively. In Virender Gaur vs. State of Haryana, the Supreme Court for example asserts that the “enjoyment of life including the right to live with human dignity encompasses within its ambit, the protection and preservation of environment, ecological balance free from pollution of air and water, sanitation, without which life cannot be enjoyed”. This suggests that human dignity is only possible when a healthy environment is maintained.
In R.S. Verma vs. State of Rajasthan the High Court held that Article 21 also ensures a life worth living, including the ability to maintain the physical and mental health of citizen. In order to achieve that, preservation and maintenance of the environment is indispensable.
Humans therefore require a clean environment to live with dignity, but also in order to be physically and mentally healthy and enjoy life. These are the major reasons why the Supreme Court in India recognized the right to a clean environment implicitly in the right to life.
The Bhopal incident also lead to other legal developments, such as the Environment Protection Act in 1986. Nonetheless, the culprit company, UCC, got off lightly in this case, settling with the Indian government to pay compensation based on an absurdly modest number of victims – less than 4000 lives. It is now estimated that the leak actually killed more than 22,000 people, leaving another 100,000 suffering from health problems.
So what has this right to a clean environment really meant for Indian citizens given that to this day UCC has not been held fully accountable? It is widely believed that the company continues to cover up the full extent of its responsibility in the disaster and withhold scientific information regarding the long term effects on both the environment and human health of the toxins leaked.
What’s more, how many more victims does there have to be before the right becomes properly enforced and corporations start to care about the prevention of risks to employees, civilians and the environment?
Near three decades later in the first half of 2013, a long overdue action plan to clean up the site has finally been devised.
This is not the only positive development having taken place in India this last year. In August 2013, the Indian Companies Act was amended, enacting corporate social responsibility requirements. Could this new rule be evidence of a corporate culture shift? Find out all about it in the next entry!