The Enviro-Litigators


people in India‚ÄčThe public interest litigators featured here focus on rivers and on the ways in which households and industries use river water. Recognizing that rivers provide more than half of all water needs for agriculture, industry and household life, these citizens feel compelled to represent the value of rivers and river ecology as a central human right. They see human rights issues through the conflict over uses of river water. They are litigants advocating specific strategies for restoring river ecology and satisfying human needs.

Looking into the past, we might want to ask about where this contemporary interest in law and rivers comes from? What are the historical paths that interests in water, rivers and environmentalism have taken over time? In colonial law and policy, there is little mention of rivers but we do find a good number of legal cases pertaining to well water. In colonial law, we find that the terms contamination, defilement and fouling were used to settle cases on well water disputes. In curious ways, these cases provide a window into how, from the beginning of government policies on water resources, the concern for water potability ran antithetical to caste notions of impurity. This concern for potability and its implications for caste notions of impurity underscore the relationship between official-bureaucratic environmental programs and other nongovernmental public programs today.

The starting point in the Indian context appears to be the discourses of colonial officials. These officials used the notion of physical defilement to code specific human interactions with environmental resources. Colonial officials attempted to enforce a strong distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical and incorporate that distinction into the civil and criminal laws they were creating. They did this to assert the primacy of civil over divine power. Later, as postcolonial law took shape, official discourses moved the notions of defilement and contamination in other directions.

Today, law related to rivers and environmental protection develops in a field called "public interest litigation." Public interest litigation occupies a unique place in the Indian judicial system. This process of arguing against a power or agency in the name of the public good extends the democratic process in India. The Indian Constitution contains articles that declare the responsibilities of the state and its citizens to protect and improve the environment and safeguard forests and wildlife. Constitutional provisions also allow lawyers and citizens to broaden the legal standing for plaintiffs filing suits in the public interest. Public interest litigation provides opportunities for citizens to stand for the public and challenge the structures of power from within the constitutional framework.


In the 1980s, the Supreme Court of India began hearing public interest petitions that charged public authorities with dereliction of duty. Petitioners alleged that authorities vested with the responsibility of preventing pollution were not executing their powers. High Court and Supreme Court Justices heard and accepted as legitimate a range of petition types. They accepted letters, appeals and newspaper editorials written by citizens as writ petitions for the public interest. These were petitions written to protect national rivers (Ganges, Yamuna), national monuments (Taj Mahal), and public commons lands. By filing these, petitioners aimed to bring more transparency into official bureaucratic programs and put pressure on agents of industrial and technological development to manage and adequately dispose of their waste byproducts.

Last Updated: April 02, 2017