History of Environment Protection Ancient, Medieval and Modern India

Share & spread the love

The task of protecting the environment and keeping the ecology balanced and unaffected is something every individual as a student, association or corporation must undertake. Article 51 (A) enshrined in the Constitution obligates protection of the environment as the fundamental duty as well as social obligation of every citizen.

In 1972, The United Nations conducted a conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. India was also a party to this conference and in its agenda included preservation of quality of air, water and measures to lessen the pollution in the country.

Well, the matter of preservation and protection of the environment is not only confined to the contemporary India but also goes way back in history proving its significance.

Protection of environment in the Indian Tradition and culture

India has always had a rich ancient tradition of protecting the environment which in turn, has made the people of India worship and embrace nature in every way possible. Trees, water, animals, land have an important mention in ancient Indian texts. Indian texts such as the Arthashastra, Sathapatha Bhramanas, Vedas, Manusmriti, Ramayana, Mahabharata etc. enable us to understand the concepts of environment conservation and maintaining forest ecology; also hymns in the four Vedas, Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda, reveal full cognizance of the undesirable effects of climate change, distortion in ecological balance, and environmental degradation; and appropriately caution against them.

Bhagavata Gita Purana writes

‘According to the different modes of material nature the mode of goodness, the mode of passion and the mode of darkness — there are different living creatures, who are known as demigods, human beings and hellish living entities. O King, even a particular mode of nature, being mixed with the other two, is divided into three, and thus each kind of living creature is influenced by the other modes and acquires its habits also’.

According to Amma, there is an inseparable bond between man and nature. For man, there cannot be an existence removed from nature.

Letting alone Hinduism, diverse traditions and religions existing in India look up to environment and its preservation as an ultimate goal. Various literary texts caution us against environmental degradation and endorse us ensuring effective sustainability. 

In Quran, reference is made regarding the environment which says- “Do not make mischief on the earth”

Christians baptize a new born child in the water, which denotes ‘purification from original sins’.

In Buddhism, Buddha, being an aficionado of nature have stated that trees provide shade and shelter and hence, are too sacrosanct to be exploited.

According to Lord Mahavira-

“To kill or to hurt any living being amounts to killing or hurting oneself. The compassion of others is compassion to one’s own self.”

This allows us to fathom that the reflection of nature is deeply rooted in ancient Indian tradition.

We hereby can infer that almost all the religions as well as ancient texts have an ingrained nature of environmental overtones which was to observe conduct towards nature and its creations.

Protection of environment in Ancient India

The ancient people, though didn’t study the importance of environment and ecology in books or journals like we do but were well conscious of its basic principles and significance. They believed that the protection of Mother Nature is a moral responsibility of their own and hereby, should essentially preserve nature as much as possible without having a toll on it for the satisfaction of their needs.

Indus valley civilization, popularly known as Harappan civilization which flourished around 5000 years ago, archaeologically makes us believe to have perceived environment as a primary concern. They also believed in hygiene and sanitation, waste management which lets us infer their cautiousness about the protection of environment evident from their constructions of public baths, bathrooms, waste disposal, underground drainage system, etc.

Vedic culture (1500- 500 BC) emphasises on protection and cleaning of the environment but we cannot wholly allude to this perspective as it is also believed that , people in Indus Valley who practised agriculture were highly dependent on irrigation and overseas trade, which would only be possible because of the rain fed soil and easy access to sea. The reduction of forests was because of the usage of immense amount of timber-wood for burning bricks. Less occurrence of rainfall, soil erosion, lack of dams are most likely to be the prime factors which led to the downfall of this civilisation.

In Hindu literature, Charak Samhita (Medical book originated in 900 BC) instructs the readers on the importance of maintaining and drinking pure water. Arthashastra prescribes various punishments for cutting trees, damaging environment, killing of animals which were not only bound to common citizens and masses but also to the kings and the leaders.

Manusmriti, the most authoritative among all the books of the Hindu code in India contain the earliest messages for preservation of environment and ecological balance. The highness says that – Injuring medicinal plants, cutting down shrubs, herbs, etc. should be followed by penance. Manusmriti further suggests that – One shouldn’t hurt or cause injury to other creature even in the time of distress; which we can assign to environment as well.

Vishnu Purana and Matsya Purana establish the fact that –

If the society fails to maintain ecological balance, it will get devastated. Hunting too is prohibited.

Varah Purana says that- Planting one peepal, one neem, ten flowering plants or creepers, two pomegranates, two oranges, five mangoes protect from falling in hell.

Puranas however, believe that the trees and nature have their origin from God and it is vital to maintain our ecosystem, our planet, our wellbeing.

Let me recall a very famous Shloka of the Panchatantra.

‘Vŗkshamschitvā pasun hatvā kŗtvā

Rudhira kurdamam

Yaddeva gamyate svargam narakam kena


Translated as- By cutting the trees and killing the animals, if someone aspires to go to the heaven, which is the way to hell?

However, it is palpable that the matter of environment and its protection was an important matter in the ancient times as it is today. We have seen how the ancient Indian scholars were concerned about the balance of the environment although, then, there were no questions of chemical industries, global warming, deforestation as it is today thus, making the preservation of the nature hardly arduous.

Significance of environment protection in medieval India

We don’t really look up to the medieval period of India when it comes to environment protection. This period, mainly dominated by the Mughals and Muslim rulers considered forests no more than the grassland they could hunt. Rulers as well as the masses were more intrigued in war and tended to serve people than to serve mother Earth. No worthy jurisprudence of environmental protection has been testified in this period except in the rule of Emperor Akbar. Also, the account of Babar (Babarnama) gives a detailed description of the flaura and founa existed in a very systematic manner. There’s a mention of different types of exotic and endangered animals, birds, trees, which enable us to label him as a keen researcher and a fine observer. The renowned emperor Jahangir patronized a large number of artists to whom he ordered to portray the animals and birds. Foremost, among these artists was Mansur who painted the flora of Kashmir in great detail. Jahangir is responsible for the construction of some the finest gardens in Mughal India but this shouldn’t let us have a spurious belief about their concern about protection of the environment as it was just for matter of leisure and mere curiosity about nature.

Barring ‘royal trees’ which enjoyed patronage from being cut by imposing a fine, there were no other restrictions on cutting down the trees. The right to hunting wild animals such as tigers, lions, etc. was only restricted to the members of royal families. This, in the long run, may have helped to preserve them. Therefore, it’s comprehensive enough for us to infer that during this period, forests and wildlife shrank steadily in size as there were no definite policies for their protection.

Today, we have been paying their dues and also it’s the need of the hour as the technology, industries, pollution have very much emerged taking a big toll on the environment.

British Era (1800- 1947 AD)-

British arrived in India at 1600 with the mission of trading goods from India but, after seeing the immense amount of natural resources and plunders of opportunity to exploit the resources present here, they changed their game plan and decided to accomplish their aim of exploiting natural resources in India. The early days of British India witnessed abundance of natural resources and they exploited the contemporary India by the policy of imperialism. After Mughals, the Britishers played an utmost role in devastating the natural wholesomeness of India. Their destructive energy was intense enough to convert a forest into a desert. Britishers also worked towards denudation of forests as they were of the view that agriculture and forests are a hindrance to the prosperity of their Empire.

As the time passed, over exploitation of these resources led to their scarcity which in turn, exhorted them to undertake measures to guard them. The new environmental policies served in turn to support British imperialism in India.

Thus, environmentalism and imperialism have a shared past, and the newly protected forests marked a symbiotic alliance of environmental concern with expansion of state power in India.

Various laws and policies enacted by the government help to better the conditions to some extent but there’s more to be done. To do the needful, the Indian Judiciary, has proved to be a beacon light for the betterment of our Mother Earth by protecting it and interpreting the constitution in a positive manner.

Landmark cases for protection of the environment-

M.C. Mehta v. Union Of India (Gas Leak in Shriram Factory); Supreme court of India

In 1984, there was a leakage of poisonous gas (methyl isocynate) from Union Carbide Corporation India Limited, Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. This incident is termed as the “World’s worst industrial disaster” as it claimed the lives of more than 2000 people and about 6 lakh people suffering from serious health disorders ; breathing as well as cardiac complications. While the judgement of this case was pending in the court, another gas incident followed which took place in Shri Ram foods and fertilizers Industries in 1985. This incident hazardously affected several lives as well.

M.C. Mehta, a legal practitioner filed a ‘public interest litigation’ under article 32 of the constitution. The Supreme Court judge, P.N. Bhagwati, keeping in mind the egregious one-year old Bhopal tragedy, evolved a new rule ‘Absolute Liability’ in preference to the Strict Liability of 1868. The court held that the ‘absolute liability’ of the manufacturer to provide compensation to the victims and all those who are affected was introduced in this case. The court further directed to set up an Environmental committee to discuss upon the matters related to the environment. Pursuant upon these recommendations, the Government of India passed National Environment tribunal act, 1955 to deal with cases basing on environment pollution.

Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar and ORS; Supreme Court of India-

This matter is related to the prevention of the pollution of water of the river Bokaro from the discharge of sludge/slurry from Tata Iron and Steel Co. Ltd. The petitioner alleged that the enaction of Water (Prevention and control of pollution) Act, 1978 is meant for maintaining the wholesomeness of the water and its prevention from pollution, and the State of Bihar, failing to take any actions against the company, granted a lease of the payment of royalty for collection of slurry to various persons.

To this, the apex court decided that the right to accessing pollution free water and air is a fundamental right incorporated under article 21.

However, the case was later on dismissed due to absence of good and reasonable contentions from the petitioner’s side confirming that the water of Bokaro River has been polluted by discharge from the company because on the other hand, the bench found out that effective steps have been taken by the State Pollution Control Board.

Samir Mehta v. Union of India and ORS; National Green Tribunal-

The petitioner, an environmentalist filed an application regarding the damage caused by sinking of a ship carrying fuel oil, coal, diesel hereby, creating a thick layer on the surface of the ocean, detrimental to marine ecosystem. The tribunal noticed the negligence as this case also posed various public questions and is a significant one in jurisprudence of environment. The court thereby, reaffirmed the ‘Precautionary principle’ and ‘Polluter pays principle’ and also recognised Right to clean environment as the fundamental right in Article 21 of the constitution which guarantees right to life and personal liberty.

Needless to say, Judiciary has played a vital role in protection of the environment.

Furthermore, there are ample of Indian Acts which provide for the issue of quality of environment viz. Air( Prevention and control of pollution) Act, 1981 ; Environment( protection) Act, 1986 and also in this regard various significant initiatives have been undertaken by the Government such as Green House Gas Protocol, Green Energy Project, Paris agreement and many more.

I would like to conclude by saying that today, the environmental problems in our country are over increasing. The economic development, growing population have imparted us negligence when it comes to environment and it is very necessary that we address these issues before they become filthy and in turn submerge our already fragile relations with nature. The world has become a global village – an efficiently information oriented but environmentally value deficient society and a keen observer cannot deny the fact that humans, over past years of development have detached themselves from nature, the concern starting amid the medieval period. It is fair and true to believe that foreign invasions, religious systems, modernisation have had great impact on us hereby changing our believe systems as well. Needless to say, the modern society is rational, believes in logic and science, and the circumstances have forced humans to detach themselves from nature as well as spirituality. Now, it is high time that we should understand the value of nature and the references of ancient and medieval India on the protection of the existence of humankind.

For Important Case Laws of Environmental Law, Click Here.

For more articles on Environmental Law, Click Here.

For law notes, Click Here.


  • Bhattacharya S., Chaudhuri P., Mukhopadhyay A., Journal of Ancient Indian History 24 (2008)
  • Veda publication, Journal of English language and literature, Vol 1 issue 3
  • Ahmad, Furqan. “Origin and Growth of Environmental Law in India”, Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 43
  • Jha Ganganath. Manusmriti, 1999; Kangle RP, The Kautilya Arthasastra, Part-III, Delhi; Motilal Banarasidass, 2006.
  • Sarma Rajib. Environmental awareness in the Vedic literature: An Assessment. International Journal of Sanskrit Research. 2015
  • Dr. P.S. Jaswal & V. Jaswal: Environmental Law.
  • M.C. Mehta And Anr v Union Of India And Ors. Supreme Court of India, 20 December 1986
  • Subhash Kumar v State Of Bihar And Ors. Supreme Court of India, 09 January 1991
  • Samir Mehta v. Union of India and ORS; National Green Tribunal
  • Environment ethics in Puranas and Manu Smriti, Dhananjay Vasudeo Dwivedi
  • History of Environmental Conservation, Dr. Thakur Bithin

Author Details: Saee Gunjikar (Student, Symbiosis Law School, Nagpur)

Attention all law students!

Are you tired of missing out on internship, job opportunities and law notes?

Well, fear no more! With 45,000+ students already on board, you don't want to be left behind. Be a part of the coolest legal community around!

Join our WhatsApp Groups (Click Here) and Telegram Channel (Click Here) and get instant notifications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.