The paper examines the evolution of environmental policy and law in India and the dominant influences that defined the course of policy. It identifies four distinct phases – the colonial and immediate post-colonial phase, the second phase commencing from the UN Conference on Human Environment in 1972, the Bhopal Gas leak disaster marking the milestone for the third phase and judicial activism extending over two decades as the fourth phase. In the initial colonial and post-colonial phase, environment policy was centered around State rights over forests and usage of forest produce. The dominant themes were revenue accretion and usage of forest products to fulfill development needs specifically in the spread of the railways and communication network. The post-colonial phase immediately after Independence in 1947 did not see a significant shift from the colonial period. The UN Conference on Human Environment in 1972 marked a significant milestone that changed the course of environment policy forever. The presence and participation of the Prime Minister of India in the Conference deliberations brought an immediate response in Government’s focus towards conservation actions. The period from 1972 to 1980 saw a large number of legislations being enacted. The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster was a defining movement in India’s environmental history. The inadequacy of the governance structure in prevention of the disaster, the inability of legal and administrative processes to deliver adequate compensation to the affected people and stirring of public consciousness about the threats posed by environmental negligence came together to reshape environmental policy. A chemical leak incident in the national capital shortly after the Bhopal disaster and the death of a practicing advocate in the incident became the trigger for judicial involvement in environmental matters. The source of policy developments in environment decisively shifted from an elected political executive to an unelected judiciary. International debates on climate change in recent years and commitments to abatement measures appeared only at the fringes of policy discussions. The paper narrates the progression of environment policy and law in India in each of these phases.
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