Insights into Editorial: One institution at a time

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Insights into Editorial: One institution at a time

13 June 2016

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The National Green Tribunal, enacted by Parliament in 2010, seems to have caught the attention of the new government because of its unusual effectiveness. NGT has in the short term since its establishment strongly influenced environmental litigation in India. Unlike its predecessor the National Environment Appellate Authority, its five benches have wide ranging powers to adjudicate upon any dispute that involves questions of importance to the environment. This power coupled with technical expertise has exponentially strengthened the environmental protection regime in the country. In a number of decisions, the Tribunal has proved its efficiency in resolving environmental disputes.

Recent decisions:

  • Fine on the Art of Living Foundation as environmental compensation for holding a World Cultural Festival on the eco-sensitive floodplains of the Yamuna river.
  • The Kochi circuit bench of the NGT banned all diesel vehicles more than 10 years old from operating in six cities in Kerala.
  • Ban on diesel cars in the Delhi region last year. It is expected to extend this to 15 major Indian cities with the worst air quality levels later this year.
  • The NGT has also passed various prohibitory orders against sand mining in riverbeds that is being done without environmental clearance.
  • It has imposed a no-construction zone of 75 metres around lakes and stormwater drains in Bengaluru.

All you need to know about NGT:

The NGT was established on October 18, 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010, passed by the Central Government. The stated objective of the Central Government was to provide a specialized forum for effective and speedy disposal of cases pertaining to environment protection, conservation of forests and for seeking compensation for damages caused to people or property due to violation of environmental laws or conditions specified while granting permissions.

Structure:

The Principal Bench of the NGT has been established in the National Capital – New Delhi, with regional benches in Pune (Western Zone Bench), Bhopal (Central Zone Bench), Chennai (Southern Bench) and Kolkata (Eastern Bench).

  • Each Bench has a specified geographical jurisdiction covering several States in a region. There is also a mechanism for circuit benches.
  • The Chairperson of the NGT is a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, Head Quartered in Delhi. Other Judicial members are retired Judges of High Courts.
  • Each bench of the NGT will comprise of at least one Judicial Member and one Expert Member.
  • Expert members should have a professional qualification and a minimum of 15 years experience in the field of environment/forest conservation and related subjects.

Powers:

The NGT has the power to hear all civil cases relating to environmental issues and questions that are linked to the implementation of laws listed in Schedule I of the NGT Act. These include the following:

  • 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.

Principles of Justice adopted by NGT:

  • The NGT is not bound by the procedure laid down under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, but shall be guided by principles of natural justice.
  • NGT is also not bound by the rules of evidence as enshrined in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Thus, it will be relatively easier for conservation groups to present facts and issues before the NGT, including pointing out technical flaws in a project, or proposing alternatives that could minimize environmental damage but which have not been considered.
  • While passing Orders/decisions/awards, the NGT will apply the principles of sustainable development, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principles.

Review and Appeal:

Orders can be appealed to the Supreme Court within 90 days.

What is the difference between a Court and a Tribunal?

The Supreme Court has answered this question by holding that “Every Court may be a tribunal but every tribunal necessarily may not be a court”. A High court for instance, where a PIL would be filed, may have wide ranging powers covering all enacted laws (including the power of contempt) but the NGT has only been vested with powers under the seven laws related to the Environment.

Problems with the NGT act:

The NGT has not been vested with powers to hear any matter relating to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and various laws enacted by States relating to forests, tree preservation etc. Therefore, specific and substantial issues related to these laws cannot be raised before the NGT.

What needs to be done to strengthen the NGT Act?

  • To ensure appropriate responses to environmental litigations, the government should lay down guidelines for the effective exercise of powers by the NGT. The decisions of the Tribunal and expert groups should be respected and implemented by all other government departments.
  • There should also be stringent guidelines in place for the appointment of expert members to the Tribunal based on the suggestions of different environmental groups, legal experts, judges, and academics. The entire process should be transparent and amenable to public scrutiny and review by judicial bodies and experts from different backgrounds, including scientists, technicians, judges and NGOs.
  • In order to be able to entertain petitions and prevent frivolous environmental litigations, the National Green Tribunal should be equipped with all the resources required for scrutinizing and reviewing petitions and investigating the intentions of petitioners who seek its attention.
  • Its function should be more transparent than the Supreme Court’s in environmental cases. More importantly, the procedures of PIL should be institutionalized with guidelines in place for emphasizing the conditions under which the tribunal can entertain or reject a petition seeking its attention.
  • Given the present composition of the NGT, it is very difficult on its part to monitor its directions in each and every case. In order to implement NGT’s directions effectively, it is necessary to make the implementation process more efficient through the marshalling of agencies responsible for the control of pollution, such as local government bodies and pollution control boards.
  • The legal framework also needs to be comprehensive and suitably designed for objective interpretation of environmental laws and policies. There is a plethora of legislations on environmental issues in India but many of them date back to the pre-independence era and do not correspond to the policies or realities of the post-independence period. As a result, they need to be reviewed and consolidated.
  • Many areas of environmental concern, including noise pollution and radioactive waste proliferation, are inadequately covered under existing legislations and need to be addressed by updated legislation. Environmental impact assessment and industrial zoning must also be provided with adequate legal support.

Conclusion:

The National Green Tribunal could play a particularly significant role in the context of these proposed reforms regarding the structure of environmental governance and the emergence of active environmental groups in the country. The advantage of such a system is that it permits direct access to environmental justice, allows for more relevant and greater expertise, sets up alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and offers a path for the evolution of environmental jurisprudence.