Narmada Bachao Andolan stands as a pivotal case in inter-state water disputes,
centering on the lives of those affected by the dam construction on the Narmada
River, India's fifth-largest. The river's potential for hydroelectricity and
supplying water to arid regions sparked controversy over environmental
Despite disagreements between water resources and environment
ministries, the Prime Minister's clearance, grounded in environmental impact
studies and constitutional mandates like Article 21, triggered legal challenges.
Writ petitions aimed to stall construction, presenting multiple contentions.
However, the court, emphasizing the separation of powers and acknowledging
policy decisions' significance, permitted dam construction up to 90 meters,
aligning with environment subgroup clearance and additional directives. The
Supreme Court, recognizing water's constitutional importance under Article 21,
played a crucial role in balancing developmental needs and environmental
concerns in this complex interplay of law, policy, and environmental
Case Title: Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union Of India And Ors.
Citation: Writ Petition (Civil) 328 of 2002.
Bench: Y.K. Sabharwal (former CJI), Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justice S.B.
Date of Judgment: 15th March 2005.
Court: The Supreme Court of India.
Facts of the Case
In the Narmada water dispute, involving Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat,
a tribunal was formed under the Interstate Disputes Act 1956 to resolve control,
use, and distribution conflicts. The tribunal set the dam height and directed
Gujarat to construct it. The Narmada Control Authority (NCA), an interstate
administrative body, and a review committee were established per the tribunal's
An environment subgroup, an independent entity, was created under NCA.
The closure of construction sluices in 1994 led petitioners to seek a
comprehensive project review by an independent judicial authority, citing
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and ILO Convention No. 107. They
emphasized the need for pre-reservoir filling catchment area treatment and
Comparatively, the Sierra Club v. Robert Froehlke
case halted a project for
non-compliance with the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act 1969, but in
India, lacking a similar law, administrative clearance was deemed non-violative
of Article 21. Similarly, Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hiram G. Hill, which
stopped a dam project due to endangered species, doesn't apply in India without
an Endangered Species Act.
- The appellant asserted that the environmental clearance in 1987 lacked due consideration, given the absence of pertinent studies, warranting a cessation of the Sardar Sarovar Project.
- They contended against further submergence, advocating for a reduction in dam height to facilitate unimpeded relief and rehabilitation efforts.
- The appellant argued that the Sardar Sarovar Project ran counter to the national interest, asserting a violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution in conjunction with ILO Convention No. 107.
- They advocated for the involvement of independent agencies to assess environmental costs and propose mitigating measures. Additionally, the appellant stressed the incomplete status of the catchment area treatment program, insisting it should have been concluded before initiating reservoir filling.
- The respondent contended that the decision-making process is an administrative function and should not undergo de novo review by the courts, emphasizing the judiciary's role as a guardian of fundamental rights.
- They argued that when multiple perspectives exist, the government, after careful consideration, makes decisions immune to legal challenges. The respondent highlighted the holistic evaluation of environmental impact.
- The respondent opposed the reduction of dam height, asserting that it would render power generation seasonal, causing a loss in overall power production.
- NCA's autonomy and competence were emphasized, negating the necessity for additional independent authorities.
- The government's profound concern for environmental aspects was underscored through available letters and documents.
Laws Applied (Cases):
- Whether the environmental clearance granted by the Union of India lacked
proper study and consideration of environmental impact.
- Whether the conditions set by the Ministry of Environment were not
- Whether the Narmada Control Authority displayed bias in awarding despite its
status as an independent body.
Procedural Challenge and Legal Framework: Narmada Bachao Andolan Case
- Section 4 of the Interstate Water Disputes Act, 1956.
- ILO Convention No. 107.
- Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
- A.P. Pollution Control Board vs. Prof.M.V.Nayudu (Retd.) & Others, 1999.
- Vellore Citizens Forum, Petitioner v. Union of India and Others.
- Section 3 of the Environment Protection Act.
In April 1994, the appellants initiated a writ petition, challenging the 1987
clearance for the dam's construction, asserting a lack of proper consideration.
Despite the government's administrative decision to grant clearance after
thorough examination, the appellants sought a halt to the dam construction.
The Supreme Court, in Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru and ors. v. State of
Kerala and Anr., delineated the separation of powers among the state's three
organs under the basic structure doctrine. The application of the precautionary
principle, outlined in Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, was
emphasized. This principle shifts the burden of proof onto the party advocating
a change in the status quo.
Judgment and Directive Pronouncements: Narmada Bachao Andolan Case:
The court underscored the expeditious completion of the vital project,
emphasizing strict adherence to the stipulations and directives that formed the
basis of the granted clearance.
- The dam construction should align with the tribunal's award, permitting construction up to 90 meters based on relief and realization subgroup clearance.
- Beyond 90 meters, clearance from the environment subgroup is mandatory at each stage, with permission for construction above this height granted by the Narmada Control Authority (NCA).
- States must diligently implement tribunal awards and provide rehabilitation to those affected.
- The environment subgroup will continually monitor and work towards environmental improvement.
- NCA is tasked to formulate, within four weeks, an action plan for advancing relief and restoration work.
- The review committee will convene as needed, especially in cases of disputes before the NCA.
- Grievances redressal authorities are empowered to issue directives to states for R&R program implementation, with the authority to approach the review panel in case of non-compliance.
- Quarterly meetings of the review committee are mandated to oversee dam construction progress and R&R program implementation.
The Narmada basin waterway and power generation project, initiated in 1946,
aimed to harness the water resources for both irrigation and electricity
generation. During the initial survey, seven projects were identified, with
Bharuch in Gujarat, and Bargi, Tawa, and Punasa in Madhya Pradesh being
prioritized. After thorough examination, the proposed dam at Gora in Gujarat
with a full supply level (FRL) of 161 ft (49.08m) was chosen. The foundation
stone was laid by the late Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, on April 5,
In 1964, a committee chaired by Dr. Khosla was appointed by the Indian
government to resolve the dispute over Narmada water sharing between Gujarat and
Madhya Pradesh. The committee recommended a higher dam with an FRL of 500 ft
(152.44m) in 1965. However, the government of Madhya Pradesh was not supportive
of this recommendation. Consequently, in October 1969, the Indian government
established the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) under the Interstate River
Water Disputes Act, 1956, to address the disagreement.
The NWDT issued its final award in December 1979, providing a resolution to the
Narmada water dispute.
Public Interest Litigation (PIL): Balancing Justice and Publicity
Public interest litigation, initially an innovative measure to protect human
rights and fundamental rights of the vulnerable, has expanded its scope to
include probity in public life and environmental protection. However, there is a
growing concern that PILs are being used for publicity rather than genuine
public interest. Courts, while exercising their jurisdiction in writ petitions,
must ensure they do not exceed their authority and only dispense justice
according to the law.
The essence lies in the separation of powers, emphasizing
that courts cannot govern, but rather act as sentinels to fundamental rights.
The judiciary's role is crucial in striking down laws not in line with legal
principles, emphasizing that the court is not above the law.
Policy Decisions: Navigating Governance and Judicial Oversight
The National Commission on Agriculture (NCA) and its subgroups, along with
grievance redressal committees, play a crucial role in policy decisions. While
reviewing committees monitor the NCA's activities, the courts should refrain
from intervening in matters of public projects and policy decisions. In a
democratic setup, elected governments are responsible for considering the
diverse needs of society, making policy decisions after due diligence. Courts
should avoid reviewing decisions made with care, ensuring that policy decisions
align with the law.
Importance of Dams: Addressing Water Scarcity and Energy Needs
Dams are essential for storing water, addressing water scarcity, and providing
irrigation to arid regions. They contribute to hydroelectric power generation
and flood prevention. Despite concerns about ecosystem impact, the benefits of
dams, including rainwater harvesting, outweigh these apprehensions. The storage
capacity in India is relatively low, emphasizing the need for dams to secure
water for various purposes, including agriculture and electricity generation.
Improving Society Intermingling: Tribal Welfare and Resettlement
Tribal communities affected by dam projects face relocation but are entitled to
modern facilities. Resettled tribes in Gujarat express satisfaction with the
quality of land provided. It is the government's responsibility to integrate
tribal communities into the broader social fabric, ensuring they are not
isolated from mainstream society. Balancing development with the welfare of
marginalized communities is crucial for fostering social cohesion.
Right to Clean Water under the Right to Life: Constitutional Perspectives
In India, the right to access clean drinking water is derived from
constitutional rights such as the right to food, a clean environment, and
health, all encompassed within the broader right to life under Article 21. While
Article 39 (b) of the Directive Principles of State Policy recognizes equal
access to societal resources, the right to clean drinking water is not
The judiciary, as seen in the AP Pollution Control Board
case, acknowledges the fundamental right of citizens to access clean water. This
right, though not explicitly delineated, falls under the broader right to a
clean environment and, consequently, the right to life.
In a comparative analysis, it's evident that the Narmada Bachao Andolan case
underscores the delicate balance courts must maintain between upholding
environmental concerns and recognizing the government's authority in policy
decisions. The judgment navigates complex issues of water scarcity, tribal
welfare, and constitutional rights, emphasizing the court's role as a sentinel
to fundamental rights rather than a policymaker.
The case highlights the
judiciary's reliance on constitutional provisions like Article 21 and principles
from precedents such as Kesavananda Bharati. Moreover, it emphasizes the
significance of administrative autonomy, as seen in the court's acknowledgment
of the National Commission on Agriculture's role. Law students can glean
insights into the nuanced interplay of law, policy, and environmental
conservation, understanding the judiciary's role in mitigating disputes while
upholding constitutional rights and environmental protection.
In conclusion, the Supreme Court has issued specific directives regarding the
construction of a dam, limiting it to a height of 90 meters. The clearance for
this level has been granted by the Subgroup designated for this purpose, with
any further construction requiring approval from the Environment Group for
additional environmental clearance.
The National Commission on Agriculture (NCA)
holds the authority to grant further permission for dam construction, and
reports from grievance redressal authorities are to be accorded significant
importance. In cases requiring further action, the grievance redressal authority
is instructed to approach the review authority for appropriate orders.
The decision to grant clearance emphasizes the pressing issue of inadequate
water availability even seven decades after gaining independence. This shortage
violates Article 21 and the human rights resolutions of the United Nations.
India's rivers possess the potential to alleviate the harsh conditions in arid
regions where sufficient rainfall is lacking.
Policy decisions, unless
conflicting with the law, fall within the government's prerogative, and the
courts should refrain from reassessing such decisions. The use of Public
Interest Litigation (PIL) should be circumscribed to prevent its misuse and
maintain its intended purpose.
The conclusion also underscores the need for fostering social inclusivity in
India, bringing diverse communities closer together. The government has a
responsibility to provide essential modern amenities such as drinking water,
electricity, irrigation, and rehabilitation facilities. The court's direction is
contingent upon the absence of adverse circumstances and credible studies
demonstrating harm to the ecosystem.
- Bar and Bench
- SCC Blog