MumbaiNaama: SC Shows The Way On Climate Change And Human Rights

MumbaiNaama: SC Shows The Way On Climate Change And Human Rights

The thrust of urban planning itself will have to change. Cities and states will now have to take their climate action plans more seriously than before

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Friday, April 12, 2024, 12:52 AM IST
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Representative Image | Pixabay

As summer heat courses through Mumbai, congested and chaotic as ever, mixing with humidity levels and making our days unbearable, trees offer shades of respite from it. Our lived experience tells us that the more wooded and greener an area is, the cooler it tends to be. Research has provided evidence and climate science leaves us in no doubt that trees are the bulwark against its worst impacts. From lowering heat stress to limiting the Urban Heat Island effect, from preventing rainwater runoff to recharging ground water, from providing shade and tranquillity to promoting physical and mental well-being, trees are our ally in facing climate change.

Yet, Mumbai lost 21,028 trees over the past six years between 2018 and 2023, according to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) data provided to a newspaper under the RTI Act. The data also showed that though the civic body claimed to have transplanted as many trees, their survival rate was low when checked in nine of the city’s 24 wards. The number of trees felled includes the more than 2,000 hacked overnight in 2019 in the Aarey forest for the metro car shed. Like this, the green cover was scythed for a host of infrastructure plans including the coastal road, link roads, Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train and similar projects.

Across the Mumbai harbour, in Navi Mumbai, the first strokes of summer showed up in the DPS Lake which environmentalists recorded this week as totally dry with the lake bed showing deep cracks. Shocked at this, they pointed to the intense heat as well as the blocking of the water flow to the Thane Creek after the local authority, CIDCO, constructed a road to the water transport terminal; the road goes over one of the inlets connecting the lake and the creek. Another inlet is often closed by fisherfolk in the area. Ergo: the lake dried up to the extent of showing cracks.

These are only two examples of the many that abound in our cities across India, in the towns and villages too, of pursuing 'development' at the cost of nature and ecology, and, through it, intensifying the varied impacts of climate change. Ironically, it was the BMC that steered the Mumbai Climate Action Plan (MCAP) two years ago which held out a small promise of a considered response but the same BMC belligerently pushed ahead with the coastal road which, in the climate change era, has been called ‘maladaptive infrastructure’ by scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its last report.

Why all this now? This is because the Supreme Court spoke in unambiguous words last month — the judgment was only uploaded earlier this week — that Articles 14 and 21 included “the right against the adverse effects of climate change”. This is India’s first-ever judgment recognising and bringing on record the perils of climate change, and linking its impact to human rights enshrined in Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. The bench — comprising Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud — expanded the scope of the Articles and placed climate change impacts within the ambit of human rights, including the Right to Life.

On the right to a clean environment, the bench noted: “Without a clean environment which is stable and unimpacted by the vagaries of climate change, the right to life is not fully realised. The right to health (which is a part of the right to life under Article 21) is impacted due to factors such as air pollution, shifts in vector-borne diseases, rising temperatures, droughts, shortages in food supplies due to crop failure, storms, and flooding. The inability of underserved communities to adapt to climate change or cope with its effects violates the right to life (Article 21) as well as the right to equality (Article 14).”

It further stated that the importance of the environment, as indicated by Article 48A (the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country) and Clause (g) of Article 51A (it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment), becomes a right in other parts of the Constitution. “Article 21 recognises the right to life and personal liberty while Article 14 indicates that all persons shall have equality before law and the equal protection of laws. These Articles are important sources of the right to a clean environment and the right against the adverse effects of climate change,” it said.

The bench was hearing a petition to protect the Great Indian Bustard from losing its habitat due to the laying of power transmission lines, not a plea dealing directly with climate change. But the significance of its judgment on two aspects — expanding the scope of the two fundamental Articles and reading human rights to include climate change impacts — cannot be overstated. These words from the apex court have come not a day too soon.

The judgment offers the people of India the strongest-ever suit to take on governments at state and local level in the absence of clear climate mitigation and adaptation efforts and plans. State and city governments will have to now prioritise sustainable development and environmental conservation in cities, recognising and restoring the green and blue ecological networks, and give primacy to nature as climate threats loom larger. It is the only way forward to safeguard lives, livelihoods and property. Going further, this can mean that all development and infrastructure projects will have to be evaluated for their climate impact and levels of the adverse climate effects they may cause to people.

Indeed, the thrust of urban planning itself will have to change from the present land-use plan without an ecological context to a nature-based plan in which ecology provides the context for development. This also means people working collectively in neighbourhoods can now demand of their local authorities, or work by themselves, to map and record natural areas in their neighbourhoods as a prelude to providing them statutory protection. Cities and states will now have to take their climate action plans more seriously than before. And the MCAP, or any climate plan that replaces it, will have to be a statutory plan rather than a wish list of changes that should ideally happen in Mumbai to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Far away in Strasbourg, France, another court showed more possibilities this week. The European Court of Human Rights held that the Swiss government had violated its citizens’ human rights by not meeting its targets on climate and not doing enough to stop climate change. The Swiss government argued that the human rights law does not apply to climate change but the court held otherwise and ordered it to pay Euros 80,000 ($87,000) to the group that brought the case to the judiciary.

India may be eons away from the point where governments can be held guilty of not meeting climate targets but the Supreme Court has clearly put us on that path. The intersection of human rights and climate change now has a clear focus — and our attention. Every tree, stream, river lake and hill in our cities needs to be protected if we are to face climate change with minimal damage.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

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