NGT must be strengthened
THE NATIONAL Green Tribunal (ngt) is performing well. Those who can reach it now believe that their cases will be heard speedily. Today, there is a fear among industry and environment regulators that some action would be taken if a case is heard by ngt.But there are many challenges that ngt faces and there are many issues that people have with ngt.
The biggest challenge that people face is the access to justice. Access to justice is denied by two means in ngt: firstly,by the provision of limitation period and secondly, by virtue of ngt being located in only five big cities spread across India.
Once the tribunal started operating,lower courts were barred from taking up environmental cases. Not that they were doing a great job, but the debarring of lower courts has meant that poor and disadvantaged communities living in remote parts of the country now have to go to ngt Benches in their respective zones to get justice. For a tribal trying to stop pollution from an iron ore mine in Bastar,this means filing and fighting a case in Bhopal.For a villager affected by oil pollution in Nagaland, this means coming to Kolkata and hoping to be heard quickly. This is neither easy nor affordable.
Similarly,the ngt Act has put an unrealistic time limit in place for filing a case. The limit of a maximum of three months is akin to a denial of justice.If the right to clean environment is an integral part of the right to life in our Constitution, can this right be overlooked simply because someone missed the bus or because someone came to realise the implications of polluting activities a few years down the line?
Both the above issues impact the poor and the disadvantaged the most.They are the worst sufferers of environmental degradation and now, their route to getting justice is being blocked.This must change,and quickly.
At its end, ngt faces both perceptional and real challenges.
There is a strong perception that ngt wants to hog more powers and that it wants to take on other government institutions. This has created an impression within various government agencies that ngt is riding roughshod over them.This perception can be highly damaging to the objective of effective delivery of environmental justice.ngt needs the support of various institutions to achieve this objective. It can’t operate in isolation.
The other perceptional issue that ngt must correct is that it is taking up frivolous and anti-people cases. For instance, in one case, the tribunal’s principal Bench ordered the closure of 12 eating joints in Delhi’s Hauz Khas area for not having applied for consent to operate. It is a different matter that one needs to question the very basis for restaurants to take the consent of pollution control boards.But if this judgement of ngt were to be applied across the country,then we would have to effectively close down most restaurants. In another case, ngt took strong exception to the nailing of bus stop signs onto trees by the Delhi Transport Corporation. People are questioning how such cases fall under “substantial question relating to the environment”? ngt will have to guard against such decisions because it can lose the support of the public and policymakers.
ngt faces some real challenges as well. First, we must strengthen it by giving it more powers and by investing in strengthening its infrastructure. Judicial review is an important power that must be given to ngt since there are a lot of problems with our laws.As ngt is dealing with these problems on a daily basis, only it can bring changes through case law. Similarly, we should include other environment-related laws within ngt’s ambit. These are required for effective delivery of justice and environmental protection.
ngt also needs to put certain systems in place for transparent decision-making.
It has started putting financial penalties on polluters, but so far, it has not come out with a guideline on this.ngt needs to establish principles and criteria to estimate fines, damages and compensation. It should also identify institutions and experts who can help it to scientifically estimate environmental damages/compensation/fines on a caseto-case basis. These will bring in objectivity in its judgements.
There are “frivolous” cases being filed in ngt. The tribunal has recognised this issue and has fined some people for this.Since the locus standi has to be broad as environment as an issue impacts everybody,the ngt is likely to be used for vested and frivolous litigation. But it can borrow the strategy adopted by the high courts and the Supreme Court, wherein these courts have set conditions for the admission of a public interest petition and also established a pil cell to sort out frivolous litigation at the source itself.
The bottom line is that ngt has done well so far. But many improvements are still required to make accessible, speedy and effective resolution of environmental disputes a practical reality. For this, ngt must be strengthened and not weakened. On its part, ngt must put internal checks and balances for efficient and transparent delivery of justice.The reality of justice is important,but so is its perception.
SORIT / CSE