The Pandemic and Environment

“Natural resources are the assets of the entire nation. It is the obligation of all concerned, including the Union Government and State Governments to conserve and not waste these resources. Article 48-A of the Constitution requires that the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forest and wildlife of the country. Under Article 51-A, it is the duty of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.” – T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India, (2006) 1 SCC 1.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has upended the entire world. Numberless people have died and a great number of people have fallen ill from this life-threatening biological entity which originated from the city of Wuhan, China in December 2019. COVID-19 is a gentle reminder that our health rests on the health of the environment.

One theory believes that COVID-19 is zoonotic and has jumped from animals to people. Another theory believes that the transmission pathway is yet to be found. There is a general perception that COVID-19 has been good for the environment but the reality is altogether different. During the lockdown, we witnessed a lesser number of flights, trains, and cars in action but as the lockdown was hung loose, we saw them up and running, even though the lockdown has not been fully discontinued yet. Many experts are of the opinion that the world will see increased traffic, change in climatic conditions, and pollution levels, with the efflux of time. A recent data shows that the daily carbon emissions are only 5% lower than at the same time last year. Factories that were closed are now working extra time to make up for the time which has lapsed because of the potentially fatal COVID-19. In Brazil, illegal lumberjacks have stepped on the gas in destroying and destructing the Amazon rainforest.

“Biodiversity assumes paramount significance” was the theme for the World Environment Day, 2020 (5th June, 2020). Currently, we are a witness to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and if we fail to take proper care of our environment, then a death warrant for our nature will be on the cards. A resource on which families, nature, future generations, etc., are dependent upon is biological diversity. Biological diversity includes all the organisms found on our planet i.e. plants, animals and micro-organisms, the genes they contain and the different ecosystems of which they form a part. It is a linkage between all the organisms which binds each one of them into an interdependent ecosystem and in which all of them have a role to play. A hygienic environment is an integral facet of right to a healthy life and it would be impossible to live with human dignity without a humane and healthy environment. Environmental protection has now become a matter of grave concern for human existence. Promoting environmental protection implies maintenance of the environment as a whole comprising the man-made and the natural environment. There is a constitutional command on the Governments not only to ensure and safeguard the proper environment but also an imperative duty to take adequate measures to promote, protect, and improve both the man-made and the natural environment.

The Parliament enacted the Biological Diversity Act in the year 2002 followed by the National Biodiversity Rules in the year 2004. The objective of the Act is the conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources. In the case of Centre for Environmental Law, World Wide Fund-India v. Union of India, (2013) 8 SCC 234, the Supreme Court observed that, for achieving the objectives of various Conventions including the Convention on Biological Diversity and also for proper implementation of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, etc., and the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, Biodiversity Act, Forest (Conservation) Act, etc. in the light of Articles 48-A and 51-A(g), the Government has laid down various policies and action plans such as the National Forest Policy, 1988, National Environment Policy, 2006, National Biodiversity Action Plan, 2008, National Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008, the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats, a Centrally-Sponsored Scheme framed in the year 2009 and Integrated Development of National Wildlife Action Plan, 2002-2016. Strict implementation of these plans and policies is the need of the hour as the rapid deterioration of the ecology due to human interference is aiding the rapid disappearance of several wild animal species as well. Poaching and the wildlife trade, habitat loss, human-animal conflict, epidemic, etc. are also some of the reasons which threaten and endanger some of the species. Recently, the Punjab and Haryana High Court remarked that due to undesirable human interference with forces of nature, the calamities, which were a few years back considered to be a fiction or remote possibilities have turned into harsh realities and become nightmares in many parts of the world endangering human life and even posing a threat to the very existence of mankind if remedial measures are not taken. Therefore, sustainable development with an ecological balance is the only permissible way of life. There is an urgent need for creating widespread awareness and generating public commitment and support for the cause. The National Green Tribunal was established in the year 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 for the effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection, conservation of forests and other natural resources including enforcement of any legal right relating to the environment and giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. It is a specialized body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues. The Tribunal has been putting its best foot forward to provide speedy environmental justice and expeditiously disposing of cases relating to environmental protection, conservation of forests, and other natural resources and it has to continue performing in the same manner for the smooth dispensation of environmental justice.

It is the duty of the government as well the citizens to effectively treat waste management, which includes medical, household, and other wastes, so as to minimise its impact on human health and the nature. Disinfecting migrants and workers with bleach need to be stopped and the use of gloves, face masks, etc., which are disposable, also need to be replaced with environment friendly face masks and gloves. A number of important international conferences and meetings were scheduled this year which have now been postponed like the UN Nature Summit, UN Ocean Conference, World Conservation Congress, COP26 etc., as a result, a substantial amount of time has been lost to address the biodiversity crisis. We have to make a substantial shift to an economy which fits the environment as well as the people. We have to understand the environmental laws and make sincere efforts to protect our nature even at the cost of development. The Supreme Court has time after time held that the right to live is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution and it includes the right of enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of life. If anything endangers or impairs that quality of life in derogation of laws, a citizen has right to have recourse to Article 32 of the Constitution for removing the pollution of water or air which may be detrimental to the quality of life.

Environmental laws are required to be strictly implemented as their non-implementation will lead to drastic and grave consequences on nature, which are irreversible and no slackness can be afforded or permitted on this front. Nature needs time to replenish and a collective effort is required to improve our environment so that our future generations can also live with nature and not with its fury. The Member States of the United Nations have decided to make the decade (2021-2030) as UN Decade on Restoration of Ecosystems. Restoration can only be carried out by living in harmony with the environment and protecting our biodiversity. To escape from future pandemics, destruction of the forests for housing and mining, etc., needs to be replaced by employing sustainable pathways. It is our responsibility to address the impacts of COVID-19 and protect ourselves from such threats. For a sustainable future, we will require an effectual management of hazardous chemical wastes, strong and global caring of nature and biodiversity, facilitating the transition to carbon-neutral economies, etc. The tapping of natural resources for social development has to be done with great care and caution so that environment does not get affected severely. We have to keep in mind that the natural resources are permanent assets of mankind and cannot be exhausted in one generation only. We have to remember that the adherence to sustainable development principle is an essential condition for the maintenance of the symbiotic balance between the rights to environment and development and we need to act together to make this world a better place to live in and protect the environment for our future generations in the words of John Paul II, “The Earth will not continue to offer its harvest, except with faithful stewardship. We cannot say we love the land and then take steps to destroy it for use by future generations.”

Muneeb Rashid Malik is a final-year law student at Lloyd Law College, Delhi (NCR).