The first thing two of my German friends told me when I asked them what they thought about India was “such terrible pollution!” and “There is no clean air!”. Recently I was at a leading multinational brand store searching for skincare products when the lady manning the counter told me: “Your country, I tell you, there is so much pollution! So I will tell you what will work for the allergic reaction you have!”

Was it really that bad? I had spent one pre-winter week in Bonn and come back with clear skin, softer hair, and ease of breath. However, the day after I landed back in India, I discovered a massive breakout on my forehead. That prompted me to look at India’s pollution statistics on the internet – a set of numbers that caused astonishment and dismay.

It is so bad that New Delhi, India’s capital, has severely polluted air clogged with pollutants of every kind. Readings reveal that the number of carcinogenic particles that penetrate the lungs and enter our blood stream is at a staggering high of 215, more than 21 times what is deemed medically acceptable.

It is so bad that, recently, the World Health Organisation announced that New Delhi had overtaken Beijing as the world’s most polluted city. The results have grave consequences for the health of ordinary Indian citizens, but the message clearly hasn’t sunk in as it should have; India’s newspapers and television stations consider the issue secondary to most other items of ‘news’.

‘Right to a clean environment’: Is the rights-based approach working?

Not many courts in the world are as proactive as the Indian judiciary. The sheer volume of cases under Article 21 of the Constitution of India proves it. Indeed, for one of the shortest provisions under the constitution, Article 21 has generated reams and reams of paper on judgments and arguments – testament to the fact that the notion of ‘Right to Life’ incorporates everything that makes a life worth living.

Needless to say, the ‘right to a clean environment’ forms part of it. The fundamentals of the rights-based litigation system that enforces the right to a clean environment, and as a corollary, the right to environmental protection, are built on the sole value of the ‘polluter-pays’ principle. The notion of ‘polluter-pays’ is based on the twin pillars of inter-generational equality and sustainable development.

In practice though, the ‘polluter-pays’ principle is fast displacing the purpose it set out to serve. The slew of environmental rights that were put into Article 21 created a sense of litigiousness, although perhaps justifiably so given the ongoing issues around sewage, water quality, and effluent dumping that harmed human life.

But it also meant that it became a matter of confined applicability. Industries were curtailed or shut down, and then came band-aid legislation that projected a sense of responsibility but was confined to the ivory tower of paper-tiger-hood. In fact, what has happened is the resultant effect of many rights rising together. Along with the right to environmental protection, there has been a rising pursuit of the right to a livelihood.

This puts more factories in the skyline, promotes unsustainable disposal practices of pollutants, and as a by-product puts more money in the hands of the masses. The ironic regrowth of industry and expansion of income puts more cars on the roads, which then creates even more pollution. The result, undoubtedly, has been nothing short of a disgrace. Indeed, the extent of pollution is staggering, and the parochial perception of individual rights-based attendance to the cause of environmental pollution has resulted in a myopic redress of the issue in question.

This is not to mean that such rights should not exist, or that such rights have little import. Far from it; what it actually means is that the implementation of such rights should not be piecemeal. The right to a clean environment is not limited to specific individuals or sectional interests, but should be considered a generational right to be experienced and enjoyed by the entire community. Instead of targeting industry alone, the administrative units in charge of addressing pollution control need to act faster and on a broader national level to counter the effects of pollution.

Otherwise, we will die from breathing all that poison.