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Precautionary principles

‘Precautionary principle’ plays a significant role in determining whether developmental process is sustainable or not. ‘Precautionary principle’ underlies sustainable development which requires that the developmental activity must be stopped and prevented if it causes serious and irreversible environmental damage. The emergence of precautionary principle marks a shift in the international environmental jurisprudence- a shift from assimilative capacity principle to precautionary principle.

1. Assimilative Capacity Principle: Assimilative capacity principle underlies earlier legal measures to protect the environment. In 1972, the UN conference on Human Environment was held at Stockholm which resulted in the adoption of Stockholm Declaration containing 26 principles. Principles 6 of the Stockholm Declaration contains assimilative capacity principle which assumes that science could provide the policy makers with the necessary information and means to avoid encroaching upon the capacity of the environment to assimilate impacts and it presumes that relevant technical expertise would be available when environmental harm is predicted and there would be sufficient time to act in order to avoid such harm. The assimilative capacity is based on the belief that scientific theories are certain and adequate to provide the remedies for ecological restoration whenever pollution occurs. The principle is built on the foundation of scientific certainties and adequacies. Assimilative capacity principle suffers setback due to inadequacies and uncertainties of science visible in environment context.

2. Assimilative Capacity to Precautionary Principle – A Shift – The uncertainty of scientific proof and its changing frontiers from time to time have led to great changes in the environmental concepts during the period between the Stockholm Conference of 1972 and the Rio Conference of 1992. A basic shift to the approach to environmental protection occurred initially between 1972 and 1982. Earlier the concept was based on the assimilative capacity rule as revealed from principle 6 of the Stockholm Declaration. The emphasis shifted to ‘precautionary principle’ in the principle 11 of the World Charter for Nature adopted on 28 October 1982 by the UN General Assembly by a majority of 111 votes with 18 abstentions and one negative vote casted by the United States. The developing countries overwhelmingly endorsed the Charter. The former pre-1989 Soviet Block found the Charter, an inexpensive and convenient way to demonstrate the fraternity with the isolation of United States in the Green Assembly. The World Charter for Nature proclaims that activities which are likely to cause irreversible damage to the nature shall be avoided.

So, precautionary principle is a principle which ensures that a substance or activity posing a threat to the environment is prevented from adversely affecting it, even if there is no conclusive scientific proof lining that particular substance or activity to the environmental damage. The words ‘substance’ and ‘activity’ imply substance or activity introduced as a result of human intervention.