Protection of Environment During the British Period: Major Legislations

By | August 7, 2020
Protection of Environment During the British Period

This article ‘Protection of Environment During the British Period: Major Legislations’ revolves around the major legislation relating to environmental protection which was incorporated to protect and safeguard the environment and how these legislations impacted the overall wellbeing of the nation.

Introduction

In the structure of preservation, protection and development of the environment along with the ecology, the view of the environment was built on the ideologies and beliefs of different religions.  In every religion, there is a stable progression of law, to handle the occurrence of pollution and other environmental problems in India. This can be divided into four periods. The ancient period of India, where the Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads and other scripture gave a precise description of trees, wildlife, plant and their importance to the people.

During the Medieval Period, the Mughal emperors established magnificent gardens, fruit orchards, vivid green parks around their palaces, public places etc. However, some views state that although the Mughal Emperors were admirers of nature and spent their spare time appreciating it, no attempts were made on forest conservation. During the British Governments, the legislative enactments were to first significant step towards conservation of natural resources and development of environmental jurisprudence in India. [1]

According to the views of leading scholars in the field of South Asian environmental history, Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil suggest that the pre-British period may be seen as the “golden age” of ecological harmony.

In their prominent work, The Fissured Land, they mentioned-  “despite the grave inequalities of caste and class, pre-colonial Indian society had a considerable degree of coherence and stability. This permitted a rapid turnover of ruling dynasties, without major upheavals at the level of the village.

On the other hand, cultural traditions of prudence ensured the long-term viability of the system of production alter the existing patterns of resource use and the social structures in which they were embedded. It was an entirely different story vis-à-vis Christian Europe.”  However, there is various historical research which has a contradictory viewpoint to this statement. Several instances have been detected in relation to ecological imbalance during the precolonial regimes as well. [2]

Environment laws introduced during the British Colonization

The legal control of environment pollution during the British period began with the enactment of the Indian Penal Code of 1860. Section 277 of the same provided that anyone who knowingly corrupts the water of any public spring or reservoir, which makes the water unfit for the purpose of ordinary use, shall be punished with either a simple or rigorous imprisonment for a term extending to 3 months or fine up to hundred rupees. In addition to this, the code also provides provisions for deteriorating the atmosphere, thereby making it virulent for the health of people at large, shall be punishable with five hundred. [3]

The advent of British Raj, altered the nature of the environmental governance in India immensely. During the early times of the British rule, there was wide-scale plundering of natural resources from India. In the Indian Forest Act, 1865 the exploitation of forest resources were inserted in the first forest law. This provision within the Act depicted an implied state monopoly over the forests, on the contrary, the customary usage of forests by the villagers was not considered as a matter of right.

The other aspect of the British Colonization would be the distinct establishment of industries in coastal and other parts of the country. The Shore Nuisance (Bombay and Colaba) Act 1853, was one of the primary laws made during the British Rule as a solution to counter water pollution, caused by the industries.

The provision to control and effectively control the pollution caused by the Oriental Gas Company was imbibed within the Oriental Gas Company Act, 1857. The other legislation prohibiting hindrance and obstruction with the flow of water in streams or river to as to cause damage to the water bodies was stated in the North India Canal and Drainage Act, 1873. The other acts dealing with different themes relating to the environment would be The Indian Easements Act, 1882, the Bengal Smoke Nuisance Act, 1905, the Indian Fisheries Act, 1897, the Bombay Smoke Nuisance Act, 1912.

The colonial regime approved a series of laws, that converted a lot of common lands, all water sources and most of the forested area into the state property, from 1865 onwards. This served to increase the revenues, financing the empire and fuelling the continuing industrialisation of Britain. The regime continued with a few modification post-independence but the profits were very unequally distributed.[4]

Major Legislations

1. The Shore Nuisance (Bombay and Colaba) Act 1853

This act, as mentioned earlier is the earliest act on the book of statues relating to the control of water pollution in India. The Collector of Land Revenue was entrusted with the power to direct a party to remove the presence of nuisance anywhere below the high water mark to get it abated or removed him. [5] This Act was formulated to manage the waste materials discharged from the coastal areas of Bombay and Colaba area, from the different industries functioning in those areas.

2. Oriental Gas Company Act, 1857

This law imposed penalty and restricted corrupting the water, by the Oriental Gas Company. It authorised an individual to dig up the ground and inspect pipes and channels for the water of the company and to discover any leakage thereby causing water pollution.

The fine charged was Rs 1000, for contaminating the water and upon the continuation of the offence Rs 500 per day was determined. [6]

3. The Indian Forest Act, 1927

The Indian Forest Act of 1865 was formulated to initiate a state monopoly and acquisition, especially in the regions which were considered appropriate for acquiring railway supplies.

Since all the questions arising from this Act, in relation to the property right of the forest could not be resolved completely, a new Forest Act of 1878 was formulated. Customary laws which were prevalent for centuries, where the rural population had rights over the forests were erased, and in addition to this, a set of penalties were prescribed. Remote forests were also brought within the purview of the commercial circuit of timber production.

In addition to this, commercial varieties of trees were cultivated at the expense of other forest resources.[7] In the year 1927, there was an amendment made in this Act. The Indian Forest Act of 1927 incorporated land using policy, where Britishers could acquire any forest property, village forests and Other Common Property Resources. Section 26(1) of the Act made it punishable if any individual contravenes these set of rules made by State Government, and pollutes the water of a forest area.

4. The Serais Act, 1867

The Act enjoined upon a keeper of a Sarai/ Inn to keep a certain standard of water which would be fit for consumption by “persons and use of it by the animals” the standard would be in alignment with the satisfaction of the District Magistrate or his nominees. Failure to abide by the mentioned standards would give rise to liability of rupees twenty. [8]

5. The Fairways Act, 1881

The Fairways Act, 1881 along with the Indian Ports Act, 1908 and Inland Vessels Act, 1917 also dealt with pollution of water.[9] Section 8 of the Act, gave authority to the Central Government to formulate laws to regulate or restrict throwing of rubbish in any fairway leading to a port thereby causing or giving rise to a bank or shoal.

6. Indian Easement Act, 1882

It safeguarded the riparian owners against any unreasonable pollution by an upstream officer. The illustrations (f), (h) and (j) of Section 7 of the Act deals with the pollution of waters.[10]

Section 28(d) of the Easement Act 1882 permits prescriptive authority to pollute the water, however not an absolute right. [11]

7. The Indian Fisheries Act, 1897

The Indian Fisheries Act is considered to be a milestone in the history of Indian Fishery. The Act had delegated the responsibility to the Provinces (States), of evolution and conservation of fisheries of the inland and territorial waters of the respective states. It also authorises the States to formulate their own set of rules and regulation for safeguarding their fisheries. The Act also encouraged to adopt conservation measures to reduce the destruction of resource, as a direct consequence to development, management and safeguarding fish and fisheries. [12]

The other enactments were The Police Act, 1861, Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, The Bengal Smoke and Nuisance Act, 1905, The Indian Motors Vehicle Act, 1939. In the year 1873, the then Madras Government enacted the primary wildlife statute for the safeguarding of wild elephants. The Elephants’ Preservation Act, 1879, the Wild Birds and Animals Protection Act, 1912 etc were the other legislation for the protection of wildlife. [13]

Conclusion

The intention for British Rule in India was not to safeguard nature’s wealth and interest of the people of India. Hence the expectation of wellbeing out of the legislations designed by the Britishers cannot be considered at the best interest of the people. However, the initiatives by the Britishers were to formulate laws on every sphere for establishing a legal regime in the country, thereby creating a platform of environmental jurisprudence in India.

According to Guha and Gadgil, during 1860, Britain was considered as the “world leader” in matters of deforestation not only in its own forests but also that of

Ireland, South Africa, and certain parts of the northeastern United States, to supply timber for ship-building, farming and iron- smelting; due to the speedy shrinkage of forests, they had to discover a permanent supply for Royal Navy. Search parties were sent to India’s west coast, to gain control over the Indian teak industry. [14]

Although many laws formulated during the British Raj were mala-fide, the legislations formulated was for the growth and evolution of environmental regulations in India. Even post-independence, India has adopted numerous British-enacted laws, without any specific constitutional provision on securing the environment.


[1] SCC Online, Vaishali Arora, Kallappa M. Hosaman, Suhas K. Hosamani, and Kajri Modhur Roy, “Environmental Pollution in India: The Persisting Misery and Struggle”, (2016) PL June 56

[2] Swami, Vandana. “Environmental History and British Colonialism in India: A Prime Political Agenda.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3, 2003, pp. 113–130. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41949868. Accessed 30 July 2020.

[3] Ahmad, Furqan. “Origin and Growth of Environmental Law in India”, Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 43, no. 3, 2001, pp. 358–387. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43951782. Accessed 31 July 2020.

[4]Rao, J. Mohan. “Whither India’s Environment?” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 30, no. 13, 1995, pp. 677–686. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4402567. Accessed 31 July 2020

[5] Ahmad, Furqan. “Origin and Growth of Environmental Law in India”, Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 43, no. 3, 2001, pp. 358–387. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43951782. Accessed 31 July 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Swami, Vandana. “Environmental History and British Colonialism in India: A Prime Political Agenda.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3, 2003, pp. 113–130. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41949868. Accessed 31 July 2020.

[8] Journal of General Management Research, Vol 1, Issue 1, Sukhvinder Singh Dari & Rangam Sharma, “An Overview of Environmental Jurisprudence in India” (2014)

[9]  Ahmad, Furqan. “Origin and Growth of Environmental Law in India”, Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 43, no. 3, 2001, pp. 358–387. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43951782. Accessed 31 July 2020.

[10] Section 7 of Indian Easement Act, 1882- Easement restrictive of certain rights

[11] Section 28 of Indian Easement Act, 1882- Extent of Easement

[12]Journal. Bombay Natural History Society 100(2 &3), E. G Silas, “History and Development of Fisheries Research in India” (August. December 2003), Available Here

[13] SCC Online, Vaishali Arora, Kallappa M. Hosaman, Suhas K. Hosamani, and Kajri Modhur Roy, “Environmental Pollution in India: The Persisting Misery and Struggle”, (2016) PL June 56

[14] Swami, Vandana. “Environmental History and British Colonialism in India: A Prime Political Agenda.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3, 2003, pp. 113–130. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41949868. Accessed 30 July 2020.


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