This case was concerned with a writ petition filed against the government for its failure to comply with the Environment Conservation Act 1995 and the Environmental Conservation Rules 1997.
The appellant alleged that there was arsenic contamination in tube wells across the country with the amount of arsenic in those wells being much higher than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.
Looking at the dangers to health, it was argued that the contamination is a violation of the fundamental right to life under Article 31 of the Constitution. Furthermore, the government allegedly failed to fulfil its legal duty under Article 18 of the Constitution to improve public health, because it did not take any remedial measures.
Increasingly, people fell ill due to arsenic poisoning. A year after the first case of arsenic poisoning being reported in 1996, the government took first steps to address the situation and arranged for the construction of tube wells. However, many of those wells were not built in line with the set guidelines.
Among others, the petition sought the sealing of the tube wells and testing of water quality, which the High Court dismissed due to the appellant not showing any “law or rule to allow for sealing”.
After appealing this decision, the Supreme Court held that the government had a legal obligation to seal contaminated tube wells and to do water quality tests. They named several laws and policies underpinning this obligation, among others The Environmental Conservation Act as well as the Environment Conservation Rules providing that the Department of Environment needs to ensure that drinking water standards are complied with. The Court also referred to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which imposes the obligation of ensuring citizens’ right to health.
Non-compliance with these duties to ensure access to safe drinking water was held to constitute a violation of Articles 31 and 32 of the Constitution ensuring the right to life as well as of articles 15 (provision of basic necessities) and 18 (duty to improve public health).
The right to life was furthermore held to include the preservation of the natural environment, thus going beyond the government’s obligation to ensure hygienic standards.