Justice Kuldip singh “Green Judge” : Know your Judges


Kuldip Singh (born 1 January 1932) is an Indian attorney and former member of the Supreme Court of India. Following his retirement from the court, he headed the 2002-2008 National Delimitation Commission that redistricted all of India after the 2001 census. Singh received his education from Col. Brown Cambridge School, followed by his first law degree from Punjab University in 1955 and a second one from the University of London in 1958. He served as a barrister-at-law at Lincoln’s Inn in London before returning to India in 1959.Singh was appointed to the Supreme Court on 14 December 1988 and retired on 21 December 1996.

  • The tall, hefty, grizzled Justice—dubbed ‘lion’ because of his characteristic roar—feels his most important jurisprudential contribution was in giving teeth to public interest litigation (PIL).He broke new legal ground in environmental law (earning the sobriquet ‘green’ judge) and gave a fresh dimension to human rights litigation while dealing with alleged police atrocities in Punjab (for which his detractors termed him ‘Khalistani’ judge). Post-retirement, his crusading zeal has not dimmed and he is teeming with ideas for judicial reform. “The system of judicial appointments should be more transparent,” says the former judge, who wants a national debate on the issue. He points out that the chief justice controls the high court’s and lower courts by virtue of his power to appoint and transfer judges. The exercise of this power must be transparent.
  • Singh, who was party to the 1993 nine-judge Supreme Court bench ruling which gave the judiciary primacy over the executive in the appointment of judges, disagreed with his colleagues’ view that the chief justice should be appointed on the basis of seniority, rather than selection.
  • Strong on judicial accountability, he feels “Justices (and their families) should declare their assets at the time of taking oath and every year thereafter
  • The judge dismisses politicians’ increasing fear of judicial activism and their threats to curb it. “Parliament is supreme. If they make a law, the judiciary has to accept it. But if the law is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court will strike it down…the power of judicial review cannot be taken away from the court.” He disapproves of the lower courts’ tendency to make “extrajudicial comments” about politicians.
  • Some of the legislative initiatives he would like to see from Parliament include electoral reforms to curb the use of black money in elections (by demanding income tax returns from political parties, the Supreme Court has done what it can within existing laws), a uniform civil code and an amendment to Article 136 to prevent frivolous litigation. Allegations that the judiciary is poaching on executive turf annoy the usually good-humored judge: ” It was Singh who coined the “polluter pays” and “precautionary principle” in environment law, which put the onus of environmental protection squarely on the industrial sector. “He was remarkably bold in protecting the right to life,” says environment lawyer M.C. Mehta.
  • Industrialists also quaked in fear when he led the environmental bandwagon. Justice Singh devised the “precautionary principle” and the “polluter pays” principles. He asked the high court’s to set up “green benches” to tackle local ecological hazards created by industries. In one series of orders, he ordered the closure of aged and coughing textile mills functioning in congested areas of the capital, and asked the authorities instead to develop one-third of the land released as “green lungs” for the choking city.
  • The doctrine of public trust was also coined by Singh. In the Span Motels case involving dubious leases granted by former environment minister Kamal Nath, he ruled that the Government was merely the custodian of natural resources and no functionary had any business using them as private property. Likewise, former petroleum and housing ministers Satish Sharma and Sheila Kaul were made to pay exemplary damages of Rs 50 lakh and Rs 60 lakh respectively for distributing Government largesse.

“I do not believe it is being misused. It is the Supreme Court judge who decides whether to act on a PIL or not, so where is the question of arbitrariness?” If nothing else, Singh certainly livened up the social lives of his fellow judges

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Excerpts  of  Interviews (SOURCE INDIAN EXPRESS)

Retired Justice Kuldip Singh became known as the “green judge” after he presided over a number of PILs on environmental issues. Till his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1996, he passed crucial judgments on air pollution, including specifying norms for industries around the Taj Mahal.  


  • Has Delhi frittered away the benefits of the CNG ruling of 1998?
    It is very apparent that pollution levels have soared in Delhi. In the little travel I do around Delhi, I return to Chandigarh with allergic asthma. This is very sad because particulate matter levels had seen a very clear dip after the first-generation reforms. Now, the air has actually become like poison.
  • Who do you hold responsible for the deterioration in air quality?
    There has been complete laxity on part of the government in holding on to the benefits. The last government in Delhi for three terms, and at the Centre, did nothing despite so much data from so many organizations warning about deteriorating air quality. Post-2005, there are more than five million registered vehicles in Delhi, and there will be a million more unregistered ones. More importantly, 55-60% of them run on diesel. A lot of small-scale industries have come up. I am told a few stone-crushing units too are back.


  • How do you evaluate the role of the judiciary in monitoring pollution control measures in NCR since the 1990s?
    It is unfortunate that the courts have not been as active in the last decade. I think there is a need to sensitize judges on environmental protection laws. You cannot leave everything on one judge on the National Green Tribunal panel. How much can he do? Until the 1990s, the judiciary was extremely active, and the biggest judgments to benefit the environment came from the Supreme Court, not from the government — moving hazardous industries and stone-crushing units outside the city, monitoring the forest cover. The Justice Verma bench conducted almost daily hearings on the green cover, ordering that a boundary be constructed around the ridge area. The court monitored the cleaning of the Yamuna, and took steps to reduce air pollution around Delhi, Mathura and Agra. Whatever good was done for improving air quality had been initiated by the courts. But after 2005, I am sad to see the judiciary has not been as active. The district courts, high courts and the Supreme Court should intervene and participate in environment protection once again in the capital.


His boldness and innovative use of law provoked critics to accuse him of passing off-the-cuff orders. But there was a method in the apparent madness, says Mehta. Whether it was putting the lid on pollution around the Taj Mahal or ejecting hazardous factories from Delhi, he was pragmatic. For months, he coaxed, bullied and threatened the Gas Authority of India (GAIL) into giving pollution-free natural gas to the industries around the Taj.

Bureaucrats were often hauled up and threatened with jail for tardy implementation of  orders . Lazy lawyers  who  did not prepare their briefs—”I had to work 22 hours a day doing their work for them”—also got the rough edge of his tongue. But he went out of his way to put the common man at ease, speaking in Hindi or Punjabi if necessary. In family matters, he was at his gentlest, persuading husbands not to divorce their wives with a soothing “lai ja, lai ja (take her back)”. One infuriated husband struck back with “Taunu pasand hai, tusi lai jao (you like her, you take her)”.

At his crusading best while dealing with human rights violations—he handed out unprecedented compensations of Rs 10 lakh to victims and their families—he denies having played into the hands of pro-militant ersatz human rights groups.

The former judge believes PILs will play an important role in safeguarding the rights of citizens in future.


By : 

Vedansh Anand, FIMT College of Law