Environmental Crime and the Law

Environmental crime refers to the breaking of environmental laws intended to safeguard the environment and human health. These regulations govern the quality of the air and water, as well as the lawful disposal of trash and dangerous items. Environmental crimes can be committed by individuals or companies.

What is Environmental Crime?

There is no commonly agreed-upon definition of "environmental crimes," and it is usually defined based on ease of interpretation. The detrimental acts and omissions that are accountable for environmental law infractions inspired such a concept.

An environmental crime, according to Y. Situ and D. Emmons, is "an unauthorised act or omission that breaches the law and is thus subject to criminal prosecution and criminal consequence." According to the United Nations Crime and Justice Research Institute, environmental crimes "include a wide range of illicit activities, such as illegal wildlife trade, smuggling of ozone-depleting substances, illicit trade of hazardous waste, illegal, unregulated, and unethical behavior," as well as unreported fishing and illegal logging and timber trade." To be termed an "Environmental Crime," an act or omission must −

  • Cause direct or indirect environmental damage; and

  • Be prohibited by Law.

While objective, these interpretive definitions are insufficient on their own. A few issues can be detected while reviewing the intended variety of reports available: For starters, the lack of a universally accepted definition creates uncertainty about a common ground for accepting an act as an environmental crime; second, the lack of a well-defined area of activities the definition would encompass; and third, jurisdictional and geographical limitations—what is a crime in one nation may not be a crime in another.

Development of Environmental Laws in India

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) was established in 1985 and is currently the country's principal administrative agency in charge of regulating and ensuring environmental protection, as well as building the country's legislative and regulatory framework. There have been various environmental laws enacted since the 1970s. The MoEFCC, as well as the state and federal pollution control bodies, serve as the industry's regulatory and administrative hubs (collectively referred to as CPCBs and SPCBs).

The following are some of the most important legislations exclusively designed for the protection of the environment

  • The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010

  • The Air (Pollution Prevention and Control) Act of 1981

  • The Water (Pollution Prevention and Control) Act of 1974

  • The Environment Protection Act, 1986

  • The Hazardous Waste Management Regulations, etc.

DPSP of Indian Constitution

Part IV of the Indian Constitution that defines Directive Principles of State Policy also gives guideline to conserve the environment. As its Article 48A states that “the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country.”

Indian Penal Code, 1860

Public nuisance under the Indian Penal Code focuses on the application of nuisance law through particular statutory provisions in India's Civil and Criminal Codes. The Indian Penal Code of 1860 provides detailed regulations that define and punish the offence of public disturbance in its different facets and situations. The Indian Penal Code's Chapter XIV deals with offences harming public health, safety, convenience, decency, and morality. While Section 268 defines public nuisance, there are two particular provisions dealing with water pollution (Section 277) and rendering the environment unpleasant to health (Section 278) that might be utilised against water and air pollution criminals.

Different Types of Environmental Crime

Environmental crime covers a wide range of breaches that cause harm to the environment and its biodiversity, ranging from administrative or record-keeping mistakes to the actual unlawful dumping of toxins into the environment.

Environmental crimes may include, but are not limited to, the following −

  • Littering

  • Improper waste disposal

  • Oil spills

  • Destruction of wetlands

  • Dumping into oceans, streams, lakes, or rivers

  • Improperly handling pesticides or other toxic chemicals

  • Burning garbage

  • Improperly removing and disposing of asbestos

  • Falsifying lab data pertaining to environmental regulations

  • Smuggling certain chemicals, such as CFC refrigerants, into the U.S.

  • Bribing government officials

  • Committing fraud related to environmental crime


Environmental law violators are often sentenced to criminal fines, probation, jail time, or a combination of these penalties. While the most severe punishment for environmental crimes committed by people is imprisonment, penalties are intended to deter major corporations from violating environmental laws and regulations. Without the fear of severe financial penalties, some firms may conclude that disobedience is more cost-effective than following the law. Environmental crime sanctions are intended to counterbalance the financial allure of unlawful dumping.

Enforcement is frequently carried out by joint task groups comprised of members from federal, state, and local agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has enforcement jurisdiction over environmental law infractions at the federal level.

Case Law

Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs. Union of India and Ors., August 1996

Tamil Nadu residents complained that untreated effluent from tanneries and other businesses was being dumped into waterways. Every day, tanneries produced over 200 metric tonnes of leather; each kilo needed 40 litres of water in the process, and each litre of water contained 176 distinct sorts of harmful acids. Potable water was polluted due to the hazardous nature of the effluents.

Rain and floods in the local town caused the river water to pour onto the adjacent farmland. The neighbouring fields were largely used for farming and gardening. The agricultural area got poisoned as a result of the effluents. In this decision, the Supreme Court of India ruled that industrialists must take the required efforts to restore the environment.

M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath & Others, December 1996

The Court said in the Span Motel case that "one who pollutes the environment must pay to reverse the damage created by his activities." It was established that the motel administration altered the river's channel in order to safeguard the motel from future floods. The court determined that the motel should pay for the restoration of the ecosystem and ecology in the region.

Pollution created by the motel's different projects in the riverbed and on the river's banks must be removed and rectified. The Court asked the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur (NEERI) to produce an estimate of the cost of correcting the environmental and ecological harm caused by the motel.

S. Jagannath vs. Union of India & Ors., on December, 1996

The Court applied the Polluter Pays Principle, widely known as the Shrimp Farming case, and issued orders against the shrimp farming industry, which was found to be contaminating coastal regions. The Court found that the shrimp farming sector was required by the Polluter Pays Principle to compensate the harmed parties.

Under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Court urged the Central Government to form an authority to handle the situation produced by the shrimp farming business in the Coastal States and Union Territories.

The Court further ordered that the aforementioned authority should examine the environmental damage in the affected regions, identify the people or families who suffered as a result of the pollution, and decide how much compensation should be provided to them.

The court ruled that the amount of compensation to be collected from polluters to cover the cost of rehabilitating the environment should be determined by the authority.


Environmental criminality is a major hindrance to future progress. What we need is a robust, integrated system that offers a thorough, holistic, unified approach and significant outcomes. It is past time to update the environmental rules to cover organized crime and to strengthen the present low punishments. People are now everywhere, and our insatiable need for more and more is also the root cause of our current environmental crisis. Greenhouse gas emissions and rising global temperatures have depleted the ozone layer, exposing humans to greater radiation. All of these causes are to blame for the need for environmental legislation to rescue our world.

Development is vital, but we must be mindful of what we are doing with what Mother Nature has given us. Development is a component of every society's transformation, but we must consider and see what we are doing with it. An examination of environmental criminality and the law in India First, consider the larger picture.


Q1. What is the law of crime under environmental law?

Ans. To start, environmental crimes are classified as public nuisances under Section 268; the offence of producing a public nuisance is punishable by a fine of up to Rs 200 under Section 290. Those who act or fail to act in a way that causes harm to others through environmental contamination may face punishment.

Q2. What are environmental crimes under the IPC?

Ans. Section 278 of the IPC punishes the purpose of a noxious atmosphere. Under this clause, it is a serious offence to voluntarily contaminate the environment of people in general who are living, doing business, or passing along a public road.

Q3. What are the important environmental laws?

Ans. Major legislation in reference to environmental law are −

  • The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981

  • The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974

  • The Environment Protection Act of 1986

Updated on: 17-Mar-2023


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