The Black And The Green
October 2010: “Sir, I’m really interested in doing something for the environment. What do you suggest I do?”
I get asked this all the time, most often by law college undergraduates. It puzzles me. What makes these young men and women so passionate about ‘wanting to do something’?
What is their perception of what’s missing, what needs to be done, how they fit in? And there’s also this: how long will it last? My experience is that there is a high level of initial enthusiasm, but this soon dissipates. Few stay the course. Most are easily distracted by the lure of a very large monthly pay check.
This is a pity. Now, more than ever, our environment is under threat as never before. It is not just a matter of a power project here or a mining project there or an airport somewhere else. Our environment is under a concerted, concentrated attack by money and profit. Wherever you look, damage is being done, or is being proposed, usually in the name of ‘development’ and ‘progress’, but underlying every single one of these proposals is the lure of big money. The argument that every intervention involves some level of environmental damage is now utterly bogus simply because this has become an excuse to cause widespread and unthinking ecological devastation.
Now, more than ever, our environment needs young lawyers to stand up for it, people unafraid to ask awkward questions, take unpopular stands, and fight for what is right not just for us now, but for the future. There are many non-government agencies and bodies all working in this direction. Every one of them needs competent legal assistance, either free or at an affordable rate.
This is not a matter of doing something that makes you feel good. It’s a matter of our shared survival.
A second question soon overwhelms the first. How do you make a career in environmental law? There are those who have made careers only in environmental law: M.C. Mehta is the most striking instance, and there are others like Ritwick Dutta, honoured not long ago at the annual Sanctuary-RBS Wildlife awards. But youth is driven by raw ambition, and young law students of today see themselves as the stars of tomorrow, the kind of lawyers who are spoken of with awe, who have huge earnings, and enormously successful commercial practices, are highly regarded by judges across the country. If that is the only ambition, then there’s no place in the young lawyer’s life for matters of public concern. But a balance can be struck. There are countless examples from our High Courts and the Supreme Court, and the listing of those lawyers’ names would be very long indeed. All of them have hugely successful practices. All have, at some point or the other, appeared for environmental causes.
There are two things about an environmental law practice that are unique. The first, and most startling, is that of the branches of law, it is this one in which new laws are constantly being made. The major legal principles and breakthroughs of the last 20 years – the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle, absolute liability, sustainable development as a matter of law and right, the fundamental right to clean environment, the principle of intergenerational equity – have all evolved only in the context of environmental law. That is because this branch of law is constantly shifting shape. As climate change, for instance, becomes an increasingly immediate concern, which it wasn’t 15 years ago, there are bound to be new articulations of the law. For a lawyer who likes the intellectual challenge of being involved with the evolution of law, this is clearly the most exciting place to be.
The second aspect of an environmental law practice is that it is extremely forgiving and a great place to learn on the job. The rawest junior is allowed an appearance in court, very often because there’s nothing left to lose. My experience is that judges tend to give juniors very great latitude in environmental cases, the kind of leeway that isn’t easily available in commercial matters. As there isn’t a client with a direct involvement or interest who is likely to be severely damaged by an adverse order, a loss is easier to bear.
The hardest question of all: what’s the point? Why bother? Nothing changes; you can only lose. Perhaps. But consider this: should an environmental cause be lost only for want of trying? The end result is often irrelevant. What matters is to let it be known that there are enough of us willing to stand up for the environment and our future.
By Gautam Patel