20th October – National Green Tribunal

National Green Tribunal

This October 18 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.

Background – Evolution of the NGT –

  • 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. Probably, 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.

Judicial observations –

  • In judgments such as M.C. Mehta & Anr. Etc vs Union Of India & Ors. Etc (1986), the then Chief Justice of India, Justice P.N. Bhagwati, had suggested “to the Government of India that since cases involving issues of environmental pollution, ecological destructions and conflicts over national resources are increasingly coming up for adjudication and these cases involve assessment and evolution of scientific and technical data, it might be desirable to set up Environmental Courts on the regional basis with one professional Judge and two experts drawn from the Ecological Sciences Research Group keeping in view the nature of the case and the expertise required for its adjudication. There would of course be a right of appeal to this Court from the decision of the Environment Court”.
  • These observations were recalled in 1999 by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of A.P. Pollution Control Board vs Prof. M.V. Nayudu (Retd.) which added its own emphasis on the need for a court that was “a combination of a Judge and Technical Experts” with an appeal to the Supreme Court from the Environmental Court.

A rocky road to its passage –

  • The NGT’s first year was a turbulent one. When the first draft of the NGT Bill was circulated as part of a pre-legislative consultation process and inspired widespread debate, it was argued that it would contribute to the trend of ‘tribunalisation’.
  • In the last category, an environmental non-governmental organisation took issue with the name and argued that the word ‘Green’ could act as a green signal to potential polluters.
  • Following its passage, the Madras High Court even issued notice on a petition which had challenged the Act as unconstitutional and stayed appointments to the body (an order vacated by the Supreme Court on appeal).

Performance of NGT –

  • 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.
  • In this endeavour it has been assisted by brilliant practitioners, many of whom are young counsels, passionate and dedicated towards protecting the environment.

Key challenges –

The 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.

Conclusion –

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.

SourceThe Hindu

QUESTION – Recently, the National Green Tribunal has completed ten years since its inception. Track its progress, significance and outline its challenges in protecting our environment.

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