India: Need For Sustainable Development

Last Updated: 12 January 2017
Article by Pragya Ohri

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed."

- Mahatma Gandhi

With the ever growing economies and the need and greed for more, the doctrine of Sustainable Development becomes the most relevant principle in today's times. The doctrine of Sustainable Development has most commonly been defined as development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular, the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."1

This definition emanates from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report published by World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.

For the first time, the doctrine of "Sustainable Development" was discussed in the Stockholm Declaration of 1972. Thereafter, in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development submitted its report, which is also known as Bruntland Commission Report wherein an effort was made to link economic development and environment protection. In 1992, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development codified the principle of Sustainable Development.

Simply put, the principle of Sustainable Development attempts to maintain a balance between development and the environment. It promotes inter-generational equity, i.e. better quality of life for present and future generations. The benefit from development ought to be equated with the impact on the environment for such development. While development is important or in fact necessary, the impact on the environment ought to be studied before undertaking such development. The basic concept of sustainable development aims to maintain a balance between economic advancement while protecting the environment in order to meet the needs of the present as well the future generations. The two pillars of the doctrine of Sustainable Development are Polluter Pays principle and Precautionary principle.

Judicial Overview:

India being a growing economy has seen rampant industrialisation and development in recent past, which resulted in adverse impact on the environment. Witnessing such degradation, the Supreme Court of India in a bid to protect the environment, played a significant role in shaping and adopting the doctrine of Sustainable Development. This crusade for safeguarding the environment was led by Justice Kuldip Singh, who famously came to be known as the 'Green Judge'.

The doctrine of Sustainable Development was implemented by the Supreme Court in the case of Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum vs. Union of India2. The Petitioners therein had filed a petition in public interest under Article 32 of the Constitution of India against the pollution caused by discharge of untreated effluent by the tanneries and other industries in the river Palar in the State of Tamil Nadu. In the instant case, the Supreme Court held that the precautionary principle and polluter pays principle are a part of the environmental law of India. The court also held that: "Remediation of the damaged environment is part of the process of 'Sustainable Development' and as such polluter is liable to pay the cost to the individual sufferers as well as the cost of reversing the damaged ecology."

Thereafter in a number of judgments, the Apex Court explained and implemented the doctrine of Sustainable Development. The Hon'ble Supreme Court of India in Narmada Bachao Andolan vs. Union of India3 observed that "Sustainable Development means what type or extent of development can take place, which can be sustained by nature or ecology with or without mitigation". In T.N. Godavaraman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India4, the Hon'ble Supreme Court said "as a matter of preface, we may state that adherence to the principle of Sustainable Development is now a constitutional requirement. How much damage to the environment and ecology has got to be decided on the facts of each case"? In Indian Council of Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India 5, the Apex Court held: "while economic development should not be allowed to take place at the cost of ecology or by causing widespread environment destruction and violation; at the same time, the necessity to preserve ecology and environment should not hamper economic and other developments". Hence, importance has been given both to development and environment and the quest is to maintain a fine balance between environment and economic development.

The Supreme Court of India emphasised on the need to set up specialised environment courts for the effective and expeditious disposal of cases involving environmental issues, since the right to healthy environment has been construed as a part of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Establishment of the National Green Tribunal

Keeping in mind the risk to environment and human health due to unchecked and rampant industrialisation and the decisions taken at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in June, 1972, as well as United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held at Rio de Janeiro in June, 1992, to both of which Conferences India was a party, the legislature enacted the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (Act). Vide the Act, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) was established for effective and expeditious disposal of cases involving multi-disciplinary issues relating to environment.

Powers of NGT

Under Section 19 of the Act, NGT has been empowered to hear all the civil matters related to environment. Significantly, the NGT is not bound by the procedures of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 and is bound by the principles of natural justice.6 While deciding a case, the NGT should apply the principles of Sustainable Development, the precautionary principle and polluter pays principle.7 In furtherance of its duties, the NGT has furthered the crusade of environment protection basis the doctrine of Sustainable Development. The NGT in the case of Prafulla Samantray vs. Union of India8 (POSCO Case), ordered suspension of the establishment of the POSCO steel plant in Odisha, as in the opinion of the NGT, though there is a need for industrial development, and employment opportunities created by projects such as Posco's steel plant, but at the very same time such development should be within the parameters of environmental concerns and should satisfy the principles of sustainable development. The Hon'ble Tribunal in the case of Sarang Yadhwakar and others vs. The Commissioner9, held, "the principle of sustainable development takes within its ambit the application of the 'principle of proportionality' and the 'precautionary principle'. In other words, one must, while permitting development, not only ensure that no substantial damage is caused to the environment but also take such preventive measures, which would ensure no irretrievable damage to the environment even in future on the premise on intergenerational equity".

Even though the Tribunal has time and again stoutly applied the doctrine of Sustainable Development and valued the local population over economic benefits from a project, the NGT has also passed judgments in favour of industries when the economic development surpasses the environmental costs. The NGT in various cases has held in favour of project/ industries where an industry/project has taken adequate preventive steps, mitigatory measures and are armed with detailed Environment Management Plan backed by scientific studies. In Sterlite Industries (India) Pvt. Ltd. vs. Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and ors.,10 the NGT while giving certain directions held in favour of the industry and stated, "The environmental restrictions must operate with all their rigour but no action should be suspicion-based which itself is not well-founded. Precautionary principle should be invoked when the reasonable scientific data suggests that without taking appropriate preventive measures there is a plausible indication of some environmental injury or health hazard."

Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 laid down seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to encounter the urgent environmental, economic and political challenges being faced by the world. Seventeen goals were set: to end poverty; zero hunger; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry innovation and infrastructure; reduced inequalities; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water; life on land; peace, justice and strong institutions and partnership for the goals.

One can see that these goals are achievable only when nations forget their boundaries and work together as global citizens. One of the major goal is to combat climate change, which would entail climate action, industry innovation and infrastructure, use of affordable and clean energy and building sustainable cities and communities.

Combating Climate Change

Climate change is a global phenomenon, which transcends national boundaries. Emissions anywhere affect people everywhere and hence it's a global issue, which requires global solution. International cooperation between all nations is required to help developing nations become green or low-carbon economies. The rich nations, such as USA (one of the most polluting nations, having the largest per capita carbon emission) must help developing nations such as India, in moving towards low-carbon economies. The rich countries have a larger role to play and must commit to lowering their carbon footprint and help the developing nations monetarily and by way of exporting technical know-how to developing nations. Commitment to Climate Change can be secured from all Nations basis principles of "climate justice" and principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

Paris Agreement

In order to address climate change, countries adopted the Paris Agreement at Conference of the Parties (COP 21) held in Paris on 12.12.2015. In the agreement, all countries have agreed to work to limit the global rise in temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius pre-industrial levels, and moreover, strive to lower it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Paris Agreement was adopted by 185 nations in December and will come into force when 55 countries, which contribute to at least 55% of total global emissions ratify the Agreement. This Agreement is open for signatures at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 22.04.2016 until 21.04.2017 by States and the regional economic integration organizations that are Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate.

The implementation of the Paris Agreement in letter and spirit is essential for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, as set by the United Nations. This Paris Agreement provides for climate actions to be implemented by ratifying nations, which will reduce emissions and build climate resilience. The Paris Agreement is based on voluntary action and commitment made by each country based on its respective national circumstances being Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs) and does not impose legally binding emission reduction targets like the Kyoto Protocol. Though the emission reduction targets are not legally binding, the process of regular review and submission of INDCs is binding.

India's Role

India submitted its INDC on 01.10.2015 prior to the Conference of Parties in Paris and ratified the Paris Agreement on 02.10.2016 on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. India's INDC is ambitious and shows strong commitment to combating climate change. India's % share of global Annual emission is 5.7%, whereas USA's share is 15.1% and China's 28.6%. Thus, even though on a global scale India is not a part o cause of problem, it has through its INDCs shown its commitment to be a part of the solution.11

India's INDC emphasizes that in order to reach its commitment it's most important that the means and funds for implementation be provided by developed nations, technology transfer and capacity building. It also estimates that at least $2.5 trillion (at 2014-15 prices) will be required for meeting India's climate change actions between now and 2030.

India in its INDC has committed primarily to reduce emission intensity of its GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from 2005 levels; achieve about 40% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources (mainly renewable like wind and solar power) by 2030; and to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.12


Given that a large population of India is dependent upon agrarian economy, and lives in vast coastal areas and Himalayan regions, India is highly vulnerable to adverse effects of Climate change. However, India also has 30% of its population under poverty; 20% living without proper housing; 25% living without electricity and is a growing economy, thus economic and infrastructural development is critical too. Thus, in this milieu it is most important that development projects be encouraged and while being conceptualised, the doctrine of Sustainable Development be kept in mind.

In order to maintain a balance between development and environment, the principle of Sustainable Development which encompasses the 'Precautionary Principle' must be followed while envisaging a project. This would prevent any anticipated environmental impact a project may have by following and incorporating mitigating measures. Right from the stage of selection of site, to adopting efficient and environmental friendly measures at each stage and facet of construction to avoid or minimise environment de-gradation, to providing mitigatory measures and monitoring the impact of a project on the environment/eco-system and thereafter providing for restorative action in case of any degradation is imperative in today's pro- environment climate and is also the need of the hour.

The developers today must be conscious of the environment and adopt a green, pro- environment, scientific and energy efficient mind-set for each stage of a project. These measures, may increase the over-all expenditure of the project, but in the longer run the benefits would surpass such costs. The Indian Government in furtherance of its INDCs and National Action Plan on Climate Change incentivises developers and promotes use of green and energy efficient measures and these incentives can be used by developers to off-set any additional green costs.

Undeniably, Sustainable Development is the need of the hour. With the advent of energy efficient technology, a harmonious marriage between development and environment is possible. It is time that each one of us adopt an 'energy-efficient and green' mind-set and use the natural resources available equitably, judiciously and save them for our future generations, as the best way to predict future is to create it.


1 'Our Common Future', United Nations General Assembly,1987

2 AIR 1996 SC 2715

3 (2000) 10 SCC 664

4 (2008) 2 SCC 222

5 1996 (5) SCC 281

6 Section 19(1), The NGT Act,2010

7 Section 20, The NGT Act,2010

8 Appeal No. 8 of 2011, NGT

9 Appeal No. 2 of 2013, NGT

10 Appeal No. 57 and 58 of 2013, NGT


12 India's Intended Nationally Determined Contribution

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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