Over 10 years, the NGT has made a difference to environmental protection, helped by a new tribe of legal practitioners
October 18 was a significant day, as it marked the 10th anniversary of the National Green Tribunal, or NGT.
Few ministries can boast of as varied, diverse, and challenging a mandate as the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
The downside to this vast and all-encompassing scope, which covers forests, wildlife, environment, climate change and coastal protection, is that it gives rise to an equally diverse volume of litigation.
Stages in an evolution of NGT:
- Several years prior, Parliament had passed laws related to the establishment of a National Environment Tribunal (1995) and a National Environment Appellate Authority (1997).
- The Authority was intended to act primarily as a forum for challenges to environmental clearances while the Tribunal could award limited amounts of compensation in cases of environmental damage to life or property.
- Many opined, these did not go far enough in terms of jurisdiction, authority, impact, or autonomy.
- It was clear that the enforcement, protection, and adjudication of environmental laws required a specialised and dedicated body.
- A tribunal, staffed with judges and environmental experts, would need to be empowered to hear these issues so that the burden on the High Courts and the Supreme Court could be reduced.
- The quality of time spent on these issues could also be increased as, unlike the Supreme Court, the tribunal could have benches in various States, thereby increasing access to all citizens. Thus, the idea for the ‘NGT’ was born.
- The NGT was established on 18th October, 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010 for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources.
- New Delhi is the Principal Place of Sitting of the Tribunal and Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai shall be the other four places of sitting of the Tribunal.
- 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.
About National Green Tribunal (NGT)
- It is a specialised body set up under the National Green Tribunal Act (2010) for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources.
- With the establishment of the NGT, India became the third country in the world to set up a specialised environmental tribunal, only after Australia and New Zealand, and the first developing country to do so.
- NGT is mandated to make disposal of applications or appeals finally within 6 months of filing of the same.
- The NGT has five places of sittings, New Delhi is the Principal place of sitting and Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai are the other four.
Strengths and Achievements of NGT:
- Over the years NGT has emerged as a critical player in environmental regulation, passing strict orders on issues ranging from pollution to deforestation to waste management.
- NGT ensures enforcement of any legal right relating to the environment and provides relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
- NGT offers a path for the evolution of environmental jurisprudence by setting up an alternative dispute resolution mechanism.
- It helps reduce the burden of litigation in the higher courts on environmental matters.
- NGT is less formal, less expensive, and a faster way of resolving environment related disputes.
- It plays a crucial role in curbing environment-damaging activities.
- The Chairperson and members are not eligible for reappointment; hence they are likely to deliver judgements independently, without succumbing to pressure from any quarter.
- The NGT has been instrumental in ensuring that the Environment Impact Assessment process is strictly observed.
The track record
Since its inception, the NGT has, apart from creating a new breed of legal practitioners, protected vast acres of forest land, halted polluting construction activities in metros and smaller towns.
It has penalised errant officials who have turned a blind eye towards enforcing the laws, and held large corporate entities to account.
It has protected the rights of tribal communities and ensured the enforcement of the “polluter pays” principle in letter and spirit.
But key challenges remain:
- The NGT must focus less on governance issues and more on adjudication. Benches have to expand manifold. Vacancies have to be filled quickly.
- Decisions of NGT have also been criticised and challenged due to their repercussions on economic growth and development.
- The absence of a formula-based mechanism in determining the compensation has also brought criticism to the tribunal.
- The decisions given by NGT are not fully complied by the stakeholders or the government. Sometimes its decisions are pointed out not to be feasible to implement within a given timeframe.
- The lack of human and financial resources has led to high pendency of cases – which undermines NGT’s very objective of disposal of appeals within 6 months.
- The justice delivery mechanism is also hindered by limited number of regional benches.
- Two important acts – Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 have been kept out of NGT’s jurisdiction.
- This restricts the jurisdiction area of NGT and at times hampers its functioning as the crucial forest rights issue is linked directly to the environment.
In this endeavour it has been assisted by brilliant practitioners, many of whom are young counsels, passionate and dedicated towards protecting the environment.
There is need for more autonomy and widen NGT’s scope for effective protection of environment in balance with human developmental activities.
In its next decade, the NGT must continue to remain a proactive ‘inconvenience’ to all those who, while pontificating grandiloquently on the need for environmental protection, take actions that make economic growth ecologically unsustainable.