Environment Protection Act, 1986

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 “Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.”

—Stewart Udall

The earth is losing its quality environment. With the threats of climate change and resource depletion looming over the world, humans must come together. We have to take measures to protect the environment from activities that harm and degrade it thereby improving it. Laws can go a long way in ensuring that.

Articles 48A and 51A (g) of the Constitution of India, talk about the protection and improvement of the environment. Article 48A lays it down as a duty of the State whereas Article 51A (g) lays it down as a duty of the citizens. Moreover, laws such as the Air Act, 1981, Water Act, 1974, and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 among others have also been enacted. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 is an umbrella law that seeks to ensure this protection and improvement of environmental resources.

This Act supplements the existing environment laws and seeks to address the environmental concerns in totality. It consists of 4 Chapters and 26 sections. It provides for a framework that aids the coordination between the state and central authorities established under previous environmental laws.

Salient features of the Act

The most prominent features of the Act are enumerated as follows:

  1. Under the Act, the Central Government is empowered to
  2. Take requisite measures to protect and improve the environment.
  3. Coordinate the actions of State governments, authorities, and officers.
  4. Plan as well as execute national programs on the prevention, management, and abatement of environmental pollution.
  5. Establish quality standards vis-a-vis environment including standards for discharge of pollutants.
  6. Restrict areas where industries or their processes can or cannot be carried out.
  7. Establish procedures and safeguards to prevent accidents conducive to environmental pollution.
  8. Establish safeguards for the management of hazardous substances
  9. Examine processes, substances, and materials liable to cause environmental pollution.
  10. Encourage and sponsor research and innovation that relates to environmental problems.
  11. Inspect premises, plants, or machinery and direct officers or authorities to take requisite measures to prevent, control, and abate environmental pollution.
  • The Act empowers common citizens to approach the Courts after a 60-day notice has been furnished to the competent authorities.
  • It bars the discharge and emission of any environmental pollutant beyond the standard limits by any person carrying industrial operations.
  • Stringent penalties have been prescribed for transgressing any provisions of this Act.
  • Under the Act, the person in charge of a place is obligated to inform the appropriate authorities of any accidental discharge of pollutants exceeding the specified limits. Once informed these authorities will take requisite remedial steps to mitigate the pollution caused and the expenses for the same would be recoverable from the polluter subject to interest.
  • The officers empowered by the Central Government can take samples of air, water, soil, or any other substance from any factory or premises for analysis.
  • This Act provides for the establishment of environmental laboratories that work to protect the environment and people from contamination.
  • The jurisdiction of Civil Courts has been barred under this Act.

Its objectives and purposes

The following can be stated as the main objectives and purposes of this Act:

  • The main objective of this Act is to “provide for the protection and improvement of the environment and all matter connected with it.”
  • Most importantly, it aims to implement the decisions reached at the UN Conference on Human Environment which was held in Stockholm in June 1972, of which India had also been a participant.
  • The previous environment-related laws were all very specific and due to the same, they left certain gaps. This Act serves the purpose of covering all those gaps left behind by previous laws by having a general and wider scope.
  • The Act aims to facilitate effective coordination between the different central and state authorities indulged in environment protection and preservation, as established by existing laws.
  • It aims to confer the Central Government with wide powers to carry out effective environment protection measures as it sees fit.
  • It aims to lay down a detailed structure that would provide more stability and clarity on the environmental laws of the country.
  • It also aims to provide deterrent punishment to those who endanger the environment, health, and safety.

Why was it enacted?

Article 253 of the Constitution of India empowers the Parliament to enact laws to execute international obligations or decisions from international conferences and associations. India was an active participant of the UN Conference on Human Environment held at Stockholm in June 1972. It was an important event in the history of world environmental laws as it was the first major conference to be held on international environmental issues. It is still considered as a turning point in international environmental politics.

Owing to India’s participation in the Stockholm conference, a law was required to implement the decisions reached therewith. Moreover, there were many enactments made before and after the conference. And yet, a need was felt for enacting a comprehensive law that could effectively implement the decisions of the conference. Thus, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 came into being.

This Act came as an aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy to ensure that stringent laws were in place to force compliance to standards thereby preventing such hazards.

Landmark cases made under it

Some of the landmark cases under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 can be specified as under:

  • M.C. Mehta v Union of India, AIR 1997 SC 734 (Taj Trapezium Case)

This is the Taj Trapezium case. It arose out of a writ petition filed before the Supreme Court, regarding the yellow color of the marble of the Taj Mahal caused due to air pollutants and industrial emissions in the area. The Supreme Court relied on its previous judgment in Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v Union of India. The Apex Court gave several directions banning the use of coal and cake in the Taj Trapezium. It also encouraged the use of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

  • M. C. Mehta v Union of India, 1997 11 SCC 312 (Groundwater Depletion Case)

In this case, the petitioner M. C. Mehta filed a petition before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India over the depleting groundwater levels in the country. A near-crisis situation had developed in many parts of the country and there was no authority to keep a proper check on it. Thus, the Supreme Court directed the Central Government to make the Ground Water Board into an ‘authority’ under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986. It was bestowed with legal powers so that it can issue licenses and act against polluters.

  • Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v Union of India, AIR 1996 SC 1446

The Supreme Court, in this case, put to use the “Polluter-Pays” principle which means that those who pollute must pay the costs of preventing and repairing the damage due to the pollution that was caused by them. The Court gave directions to the Central Government to recover the amount from the defaulters in the case.

  • Tarun Bharat Sangh v Union of India, AIR 1992 SC 514

In this case, the Supreme Court banned the mining activities undertaken inside the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary, as they went against a notification issued by the Central Government under Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

  • Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v State of Uttar Pradesh, AIR 1985 2 SCC 431

This case was one of its kinds. It brought into focus the conflict between development and the environment. It was filed against limestone quarrying in the Dehradun valley. The Apex Court held that such quarrying activities go against the environment. It ordered the closing down of all the quarries and gave directions to the competent authorities to restore the sites of quarrying.

Critical analysis

India has many laws centering different aspects of the environment. The Environment (Protection) Act 1986, however, is the only legislation with a general and wider scope. It supplements and strengthens previous laws. It provides for wide discretionary powers to the Central Government to ensure the strict protection and preservation of the environment around us.

The Act embodies a deterrent approach to environmental pollution by way of mandating high penalties. It also provides a new stand to the question of locus standi. It empowers an ordinary citizen to approach the Courts against the violation of the provisions of this Act. Another interesting aspect of this Act is that it takes into account both accidental as well as apprehended pollution. Under Section 9 of the Act, remedial actions are mandated not only against accidental pollution but also apprehended pollution, displaying a preventive approach.

Despite seeming well-rounded and robust, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 nonetheless suffers from some drawbacks. First, it omits forests from its ambit and does not provide for the protection of forests. Further, another potential drawback of the Act could be its centralization. While such wide powers provided to the Centre can facilitate effective and expedient action, they are also liable to arbitrariness and misuse.

Furthermore, the definition of environment pollutants under Section 2 of the Act is not comprehensive enough. It does not include, for example, pollution that can be caused by way of heat radiations, vibrations, and emissions.

The Act is also silent on public participation as regards environmental protection. There is a need to involve the citizens in environmental protection to check arbitrariness and raise awareness and empathy towards the environment.

As regards its relationship with other environmental laws, Section 24 of the Act provides that in case an offense under this Act coincides with offenses under other legislations, the penalty provided under those legislations would prevail. However, owing to the much simpler and lenient penalties of such prior legislations, the offender is usually able to get away with less stringent punishments. This greatly hinders the deterrent approach of this Act and obstructs its effective implementation.


The Environment (Protection) Act 1986, while a welcome positive step in the direction of environment protection, still does not adequately take into account all the necessary aspects. It suffers from many defects and lacks comprehensiveness. By supplementing the pre-existing environmental laws, it has for sure strengthened the overall structure of environmental protection laws in India. But, it still has a long way to go. India is a ‘soft state’ when it comes to environmental laws. This means that the implementation of such laws in India suffers from major setbacks and is often influenced by politics and corruption.

This needs to stop. The need of the hour is the proper enforcement of such laws and to ensure that a healthy, wholesome environment is available to us all. Our environment is our habitat, and it affects every one of us. The protection of this environment is, thus, everyone’s responsibility. The contribution of all individuals – by developing a sense of environmental consciousness and sensitivity – is needed for the effective implementation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and other such laws. It is only then that we would be able to achieve a preserved and pollution-free environment.

Author: Avani Laad from Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

Editor: Shalu Bhati  from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.