India has a long history and list of environmental laws and protection acts. The first environmental law to be enacted in India dates back to 1865 when under the British Raj, Indian Forest Act was legislated which later got amended in 1878 and then 1927. Instead of protecting the forest, this Act led to the British exploiting the resources of the Indian forests legally[i]. Thus, from here began the journey of the Indian environmental laws which went through a paradigm change over the years to meet the demands of the contemporary times to protect the environment.
Emergence of environmental laws in independent India
Unlike pre-independence times, environmental laws in independent India were truly for protection of the environment. The table below highlights some of the most important Indian environmental Acts, rules and movements that have played significant role in the domain of protecting and conserving the natural environment of India
Name of the Act / Rule / Movement
|1960||Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act|
|1972||Wildlife Protection Act|
|1973||Save Silent Valley Movement|
|1974||Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act|
|1981||Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act|
|1985||Narmada Bachao Andolan|
|1986||Environment Protection Act|
|1986||Ganga Action Plan|
|1987||National Water Policy|
|1999||Recycled Plastics, Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules|
|2001||Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act|
|2001||Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules|
|2002||Biological Diversity Act|
|2003||Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Amendment Rules|
|2010||National Green Tribunal Act|
|2016||Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules|
|2016||E-Waste (Management) Rules|
Though Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 were two pioneer environmental laws, the most prominent environmental law that emerged out of it was the Environment Protection Act, 1986 which got enacted in response to the devastation caused by the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Henceforth, several laws and policies like Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960; Ganga Action Plan, 1986; National Water Policy, 1987; Wildlife Protection Act, 1972; Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001; Biological Diversity Act, 2002; Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules, 2001; Recycled Plastics, Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules, 1999; Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Amendment Rules, 2003; National Green Tribunal Act, 2010; Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016 and E-Waste (Management) Rules 2016, amended in 2018; were formulated to conserve the environment and its biodiversity.
Other than these national laws, India has made several international commitments to combat climate change by signing the Paris Agreement, ratifying Kyoto Protocol, Montreal Protocol and Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) to name a few. However, the question that lies ahead is to what extent have these Acts, policies, agreements and conventions helped India at the ground level to preserve its natural environment and biodiversity.
Present situation of the environmental laws and protection acts in India
According to the India State Forest Report 2019, India has 21.67% of its land under forest cover which is way less than the minimum 33% forest area required in a country to maintain ecological balance[ii]. The report also highlighted that though the nation-wide forest cover increased, there has been a decline in forest cover in north-east India which happens to be one of the two biodiversity hotspots in India.
The Indian environmental laws have been criticised for having loose framework with several loopholes and even the Central Pollution Control Board plays a mere advisory role[iii]. Even after several environmental laws existing in the country, India ranks 5th in the list of world’s most polluted country with respect to particulate matter[iv]. The Swachh Bharat Mission was launched in 2014 to deal with the issue of waste management and it played a significant role in reducing open defecation. But failure of the Ganga Action Plan, reduction in the groundwater level and easy sanctions for clearances of forests for infrastructure development projects are some of the pressing issues India is still plagued by.
On several occasions, public movements like the Chipko Movement, Appiko Movement, Silent Valley Movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan etc. played an important role in bringing up the issues of exploitation of the environment and livelihood of the indigenous people who are dependent of the forest resources for their survival into the notice of the public. Thus, a general trend has been observed where people’s movement with the help of civil society organisation have emerged to put pressure on the government to protect the environment.
Climate change has been a pestering issue over a few decades. Amidst this COVID-19 pandemic, within a few months of lockdown in several cities globally, incremental changes have been observed with improvement in the environment. India’s air quality had improved in several cities with New Delhi having a drop of 49% in its air pollution level due to the lockdown[v]. Thus, what the existing laws or treaties could not achieve over decades was made possible by this pandemic in two months time. This has compelled us to introspect that had the issues of environmental degradation and climate change been taken seriously at the ground level, the world would have been a better place to live in.
Relationship between environmental degradation and deadly diseases
Increase in emergence of deadly diseases has been observed due to exploitation of wildlife, environment, deforestation and degradation of ecological habitat. In the past deadly diseases caused by zoonotic virus were Zika, Ebola and at present SARS-CoV-2. The outbreak of these diseases are due to anthropogenic pressure which humans exert on environment. The exploitation of wildlife and natural habitats by human is also major source of virus transmission from wildlife to humans. Such activities provide allowance of anthropogenic changes where humans are frequently coming in contact with wildlife allowing viruses to evolve, mutate and transit into humans resulting in emergence of a new virus and deadlier diseases. “Human health is linked to health of animal and forest. Diseases are transmitted from animals to humans and rapidly escalating as world is continually observing destruction of wild habitats through human activity” said Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)[vi].
Environmental degradation coupled with air pollution played a vital role in strengthening the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because of a large number of people suffering from lung diseases due to air pollution are more susceptible to the disease. There are still debates and research going on to establish the link between air pollution and COVID-19 as researcher Lovinsky-Desir and her team is collecting data across New York City to know the major factors for the rapid spread of COVID-19[vii].
The effects of environmental degradation are in front of the humans and it is high time that preventive measures are taken through which human habitat can be made resilient to such pandemic. Some of the measures are listed below:-
- The existing old laws should be amended to meet the needs of the present situation and made more stringent.
- To reduce the interaction of humans with wildlife a buffer zone of reforestation can be established through tree farm projects and wild planting.
- Eco-tourism can boost the economy but can backfire if not implemented with stringent laws favouring the conservation of the environment.
- Environmental externalities should be made accountable.
- Pro-environment and sustainable approaches for development projects should be mandated.
Thus, we can conclude by saying that time has come for the public to treat environmental laws with utmost respect and seriousness otherwise nature will always have its way of taking revenge for its exploitation. Large scale public awareness and stricter laws not only on paper but also at the level of implementation are required to bring about behavioural changes among the people to make them environmentally conscious.
Authors: Viral Arun Nigam & Kahini Ojha
Viral Arun Nigam is pursuing MBA – Urban Management and Governance at Xavier School of Human Settlements, Xavier University Bhubaneswar. He is B.Plan graduate of Anant Institute of Planning, Gujarat Technological University, Ahmedabad.
Kahini Ojha is pursuing MBA – Urban Management and Governance at Xavier School of Human Settlements, Xavier University Bhubaneswar. She is a M.Sc. in Geography graduate of Presidency University, Kolkata.
[i] Menon, Jisha. The Performance of Nationalism: India, Pakistan, and the Memory of Partition. Cambridge University Press, 2013
[ii] Aggarwal, Mayank. “India’s forest cover is rising but northeast and tribal areas lose.” MONGABAY. 3 January 2020. https://india.mongabay.com/2020/01/indias-forest-cover-is-rising-but-northeast-and-tribals-lose/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%202019%20report,(21.54%20percent)%20in%202017. (accessed June 14, 2020).
[iii] DownToEarth. “A system in shambles.” DownToEarth. 7 June 2015. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/environment/a-system-in-shambles-16636#:~:text=There%20are%20many%20loopholes%20that,very%20feeble%20in%20the%20country.&text=Most%20of%20the%20pollution%20control,environmental%20regulations%2C%20have%20failed%20mi (accessed June 14, 2020).
[iv] IQAir. “World’s most polluted countries 2019 (PM2.5) .” IQAir. https://www.iqair.com/world-most-polluted-countries (accessed June 14, 2020).
[v] The New Indian Express. “Air pollution levels in Delhi drop by 49% post-lockdown.” The New Indian Express. 12 May 2020. https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/delhi/2020/may/12/air-pollution-levels-in-delhi-drop-by-49-post-lockdown-2142473.html (accessed June 14, 2020).
[vi] BK Singh, “Coronavirus: Deforestation, biodiversity loss”, Deccan Herald, April 26th ,2020, (accessed on 14th july, 2020), https://www.deccanherald.com/opinion/main-article/coronavirus-deforestation-biodiversity-loss-830308.html
[vii] Joyce Frieden, “COVID-19 and the Environment: Is There a Relationship?”, Medpaged Today, May, 5th, 2020, (accessed on 14th july, 2020),