NATIONAL GREEN TRIBUNAL
2021 JUL 15
Polity > Judiciary > Tribunals
- Observing that all five zonal Benches of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) are equally powerful and their orders are applicable across India, the Madras High Court disapproved of a 2017 Central notification, which terms the north zone Bench in Delhi as the Principal Bench.
NATIONAL GREEN TRIBUNAL:
- The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been established under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.
- It strives for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation, including enforcement of legal rights and giving relief and compensation for damages.
- The Tribunal is not bound by the procedure laid down under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, but shall be guided by principles of natural justice.
- The Tribunal’s orders are binding and it has power to grant relief in the form of compensation and damages to affected persons.
- The Tribunal has a presence in five zones- North, Central, East, South and West.
- The North Zone is situated in Delhi, Central zone bench in Bhopal, East zone in Kolkata, South zone in Chennai and West zone in Pune.
- According to the recent views of Madras High Court, all five zonal Benches of the NGT are equally powerful and their orders are applicable across India.
Principles of Natural Justice:
- Although there is no statute dealing with the principles of natural justice in India, they are commonly referred to as the minimum fair procedure that needs to be followed by administrative authorities, in order to upload the prevalence of law.
- In India, the principles of natural justice are firmly grounded in article 14 (equality before law and equal protection of law) & article 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution.
- The three pillars of the principles of natural justice are:
- Rule Against Bias (Nemo judex in causa sua): This rule emphasises on the need of having decisions free from prejudices.
- Rule of Fair Hearing (Audi alter partem) All the parties shall be given a reasonable opportunity to present their case properly.
- Reasoned Decisions: In order to further protect the rights of the parties, it is required that the decisions should be well reasoned.
- The Tribunal comprises of a Chairperson, Judicial Members and Expert Members, who hold office for term of five years and are not eligible for reappointment.
- The Tribunal is headed by the Chairperson who sits in the Principal Bench. She is appointed by the Central Government in consultation with Chief Justice of India (CJI).
- At least ten but not more than twenty judicial members.
- At least ten but not more than twenty expert members.
- Original jurisdiction:
- The tribunal has jurisdiction of all civil cases where a substantial question relating to environment is involved and also on questions arising out of the implementation of Schedule-1.
- Schedule-1 talks about following enactments:
- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974
- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977
- The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980
- The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981
- The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
- The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991
- The Biological Diversity Act, 2002
- Appellate jurisdiction:
- Any person aggrieved by an order/direction of any of the authorities under the legislations mentioned above can challenge them before the National Green Tribunal.
- While passing Orders/decisions/awards, the NGT will apply the principles of sustainable development, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principles.
- The Tribunal is mandated to make and endeavour for disposal of applications or appeals finally within 6 months of filing of the same.
- Other powers:
- NGT has the power to exercise suo motu jurisdiction.
- Decisions of the Tribunal are binding. The Tribunal’s orders are enforceable as the powers vested are the same as in a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
- NGT decision can be challenged before the Supreme Court within ninety days.
- The NGT Act also provides for penalty for noncompliance, in the form of imprisonment, fines or both.
- A claim for Compensation can be made for:
- Relief/compensation to victims of pollution and other environmental damages, including accidents involving hazardous substances.
- Restitution of property damaged;
- Restitution of the environment for such areas as determined by the NGT.
IMPORTANT JUDGEMENTS/INITIATIVES OF NGT:
Since its inception, the NGT has protected vast acres of forest land, halted polluting construction activities, penalised errant officials and held large corporate entities to account. Some of these instances include:
- On environmental conservation:
- Art of living foundation case: In 2016, the NGT had allowed the AOL Foundation to hold its massive World Culture Festival on the banks of river Yamuna, and imposed a cost of Rs 5 crore to be paid by the foundation as “restoration costs" for damaging the environment.
- Save Mon Federation Vs Union of India case: Here, the Save Mon Region Federation has filed an appeal against a Rs. 6,400-crore hydro project, since the project was near a wintering site of Black-necked Crane. The NGT suspended the project to save the habitat.
- In 2012, the NGT had suspended the clearance given for USD 12-billion Posco project in Odisha, since the government failed to deal with major environmental concerns while speeding up the clearance.
- Restitution of environment in Sonebhadra and Singrauli areas which were affected by thermal power plants and mining, and of degraded areas in Meghalaya affected by rat hole mining.
- On tackling air pollution:
- NGT got action plans approved by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for dealing with matters of air pollution in 122 cities where its level has been exceeding norms.
- It directed setting up of mechanisms to inform public on ‘severe’ condition days of air pollution and issue ‘advisories’ for taking precautionary measures.
- Slapped a ?500 crore fine on German auto major Volkswagen for damaging the environment through “cheat device” in its diesel cars in India.
- During Diwali, Christmas and New year celebrations, NGT introduced ban on the sale and use of of firecrackers in the NCR and other parts of the country where the ambient air quality was deplorable.
- Waste management:
- Slapped fine of Rs. 280 crores on 22 tanneries for causing pollution and directed several states to pay an environmental compensation for damage to the environment due to it permitting discharge of untreated sewage containing toxic chromium into river Ganga.
- Directed the CPCB to ensure that no plastic bag less than 50 microns of thickness be manufactured, stocked, sold and used across the country.
- On water quality:
- Slapped a ?100 crore fine on the Tamil Nadu government over inordinate delay in removal of encroachments along and prevention of pollution in Adyar and Cooum rivers in Chennai.
- Directed Uttarakhand and UP pollution control boards to publicise Ganga’s water quality at strategic locations every month.
- Directed the government to prohibit RO purifiers where total dissolved solids in water are below 500 mg/litre and sensitise public about the ill effects of demineralised water.
SIGNIFICANCE OF NGT:
- Comprehensive system:
- It has become a one stop solution to addressing legal questions related to environmental protection, conservation and relief that earlier spanned across numerous legislations and courts.
- Balance between environment and development:
- The rapid pace of unsustainable development in India is harming the environment. The NGT provides a check and balance for this.
- It is a specialized body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues.
- Faster expedition of cases:
- As there are fixed time frames, timely justice is ensured. Also, faster disposal of cases reduced the burden of other courts.
- Since it adheres to principles of natural justice and principles of sustainable development, precaution and polluter pays, it offers more flexibility in arriving at judgements.
- Cases can be filed in the courts directly by aggrieved persons, without the presence of a lawyer. Also, complaints can be filed through different modes, both online and offline.
- NGT has proved itself as a reliable institution when it took up several significant suo moto cases, like banning the crackers, directing states to speed up action to clean Ganga and addressing stubble burning.
- Limited jurisdiction:
- NGT is not empowered to hear matters pertaining to issues coming under the ambit of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Hence, it is unable to deal with cases of tribes and destructions applicable in case of National Parks, Sanctuaries and Tiger Reserves.
- Delays in appointments:
- Over the years, the NGT rarely got the minimum strength of members to address the environmental litigations across the country. As of July 2021, the NGT consists of Chairman, 4 judicial and 4 expert members only.
- Also, the government has not shown seriousness in appointing expert members to address increasing number of complex environmental problems like nuclear and bio-medical waste management.
- Excessive delegation to committees:
- The NGT has constituted numerous external committees to look into various aspects of cases and to submit a report thereafter. This method of delegating to external committees, with similar structure and composition as the Tribunal, gives the impression that the NGT is abrogating its own jurisdiction on cases pertaining to environmental protection.
- Burden on High courts:
- The NGT Act mentions that the court’s decisions can be challenged before the Supreme Court. In spite of this, petitioners have been invoking Article 226 (power of High Courts to issue certain writs) to challenge decisions before the High Courts, slowing down the litigation process.
- Limited access to justice:
- The tribunal has benches only at five locations. This significantly reduces the access to justice since civil courts would not deal with such cases anymore. Also, in the absence of full strength of judicial and expert members in regional benches petitioners are often forced to approach the bench in Delhi.
- Due to vacancies and COVID crisis, hearing of the zonal bench litigation is nowadays taking place via video-conference and that too only for one to two hours.
- Weak enforcement:
- There is no institutional mechanism to ensure that the environmental regulatory authorities comply with the orders of the tribunal. As a result, most of the landmark orders of the NGT related to Ganga water pollution, Delhi air pollution, illegal mining, and solid waste management remain unenforced.
- The number of environmental cases has been on the rise but due to lack of benches and infrastructure, the body is unable to pronounce its judgment within the stipulated time-period of six months.
- NGT’s role and jurisdiction need to be expanded in order to bring NGT somewhat at par with the judiciary in handling the environment cases.
- The predicament of the lack of human resource needs to be resolved in order for the Tribunal to reach its envisioned potential.
- The higher courts of the country have long decried the practice of Tribunals delegating their vital role to executive authorities for their examination on merits, and thus, such excessive delegation by the NGT needs to be checked.
- To prevent appealing through the High courts, the NGT Act may be amended to specify that NGT orders can be challenged only in the SC.
- Benches of the NGT has to expand manifold to ensure better access to justice. Also, information technology needs to be further leveraged to ensure that dispensation of justice is not hampered.
- The government needs to provide adequate financial resources along with an increase in its power to handle cases.
Covid-19 has made it visible that human activities have already caused serious damage to the environment and some of which are that which cannot be recovered. And India being a highly populated country, it requires number of other measures in order to curb and look after such problems. Here comes the role of National Green Tribunal for environment conservation & protection. But alone it cannot change the problems. A reorientation from our technocentric developmental model to a more sustainable ecocentric approach is essential.
Q. With suitable examples, discuss the significance of National Green Tribunal (NGT) in adjudicating environmental cases in India?