National Green Tribunal (NGT)

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Context: NGT has completed 10 years on October 18.

Analysis

  • The National Green Tribunal, established in 2010, as per the National Green Tribunal Act, is a specialised judicial body equipped with expertise solely for the purpose of adjudicating environmental cases in the country.
  • The National Green Tribunal was established for:
  1. Effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources and help reduce the burden of litigation in the higher courts;
  2. Enforcement of any legal right relating to environment;
  3. Giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
  4. Restoration of the ecology in accordance with the ‘Polluter Pays’ Principle and powers to enforce the ‘Precautionary Principle’. 
  • It is a specialized body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues.
  • The Tribunal has the same powers as are vested in a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. 
  • The Tribunal shall not be bound by the procedure laid down under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, but shall be guided by principles of natural justice.
  • The NGT is also not bound by the rules of evidence as enshrined in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
  • The Tribunal is mandated to make and endeavour for disposal of applications or appeals finally within 6 months of filing of the same.
  • The Tribunal has the original jurisdiction over all civil cases, where a substantial question relating to environment is involved, under the following acts:
  1. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974;
  2. The Water (Prevention and Control o[Pollution) Cess Act, 1977;
  3. The Forest (Conservation) Act; 1980;
  4. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981;
  5. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986;
  6. The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991;
  7. The Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
  • Barring the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and laws enacted by states pertaining to forests, the NGT has the power to hear all civil cases relating to environmental issues and questions.
  • It can impose sentences “which may extend to three years, or with fine which may extend to Rs 10 crore,” on individuals failing to comply with its orders, and can take action for offences by companies or government departments.
  • The Tribunal is competent to provide relief over and above as is admissible under the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. 
  • In order to ensure access to justice, pollution control boards and local authorities have also been empowered under the NGT Act to file an application or appeal before the Tribunal on behalf of the affected person. 
  • The 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.   
  • Are decisions of the Tribunal final?…The Tribunal has powers to review its own decisions. If this fails, the decision can be challenged before the Supreme Court within ninety days.
  • No civil court shall have jurisdiction to entertain any appeal in respect of any matter which the Tribunal is empowered to determine under its appellate jurisdiction.
  • Engaging an advocate is not necessary to approach the Tribunal. Aggrieved parties may approach the Tribunal in person by submitting an application in the required format.
  • The NGT can quash a decision taken by the MoEF.
  • New Delhi is the Principal Place of Sitting of the Tribunal and Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai are the other four places of sitting of the Tribunal.
  • India was the third country following Australia and New Zealand to have such a system.

Chairperson and Members of NGT

  • It has a full-time chairperson and following members:
  1. At least 10 and maximum 20 full time Judicial Members
  2. At least 10 and maximum 20 full time Expert Members
  • Its chairperson should have been either a Judge of Supreme Court or Chief Justice of a High Court in India.
  • Other Judicial members are retired Judges of High Courts.
  • Expert members should have a professional qualification and a minimum of 15 years experience in the field of environment/forest conservation and related subjects.
  • Once retired, the chairperson or judicial members cannot take up any job related to matters of this tribunal for at least 2 years.
  • Earlier every Bench of the NGT consisted of “two or more” members and made up of at least one judicial and one expert member.
  • But recently, in a bid to address the festering problem of vacancies in the National Green Tribunal, the government has amended rules to allow the court to constitute single member Benches.

NGT in News

  • Citing the recent devastating floods in Kerala and the serious stress to the Western Ghats ecology, the National Green Tribunal has restrained six States in the region from giving environmental clearance to activities which may adversely affect the eco-sensitive areas.
  • The six States are Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
  • The National Green Tribunal has given directions to the J&K government to stop the use of horses and ponies in Vaishno Devi shrine premises in Jammu because large amounts of untreated solid and liquid waste generated by them are disposed directly into Banganga river.
  • The India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project was recently challenged in the National Green Tribunal on environmental grounds, given the proposed site’s proximity to the Mathikettan Shola National Park in Kerala’s Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot.

Dhamapur Lake

  • The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the restoration of the 490-year-old heritage Dhamapur Lake, a notified wetland in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district and directed the bank account of the state public works department (PWD) be seized since its previous orders were not adhered to.
  • The bench was hearing a 2017 application by Sindhudurg residents before NGT, Pune, saying encroachments and the construction of skywalks around the Dhamapur Lake by the PWD with permissions issued by the district administration was shrinking the size of the lake and causing environmental degradation.
  • The Dhamapur Lake, an inland wetland and a permanent freshwater lake, was constructed in 1530.
  • It is one of the top 100 wetlands in India identified by the Union environment ministry for rapid restoration and improvement, and also a projected Ramsar site by the Maharashtra government.

Polluter Pays Principle

  • The polluter pays principle came to be explicitly discussed in relation to environmental harms by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development in the 1970s and 80s.
  • In 1992, it was adopted by the international community in Principle 16 of the Earth Summit’s Rio Declaration (1992).

The Indian Experience

  • The Polluter Pays principle made an important impact in the famous MC Mehta Oleum Gas Leak case.
  • In this judgment, the Supreme Court laid down the rule of absolute liability which essentially states that a person would be wholly responsible for any mishap caused by their “hazardous or inherently dangerous” enterprise, which in this case was a chlorine plant.
  • The apex court noted that the polluter’s liability would depend on their ability to pay – thus using the principle to both clean up the environmental damage and to punish the polluter.
  • In later cases like Bichhri, the Court noted that the polluter would need to pay for cleaning up the damage as well as compensate those harmed by the pollution.
  • Again, in the Vellore Citizens case, the Court highlighted that the polluter pays principle was implied in the Constitutional provisions protecting the environment as well as in the various Acts concerning the environment.
  • Interestingly, under the public interest litigation route, courts in India have often also held the government liable for failing to curb the pollution and have directed them to pay for the costs of environmental damage.

Grey Areas

  • The primary problem with this principle occurs with the fact that by its very nature, environmental pollution is not always easy to narrow down to a single source which can be strictly punished.
  • A great deal of pollution is from non-point sources, cumulative in nature and occurs over long time spans.
  • Thus, identifying a perpetrator is both difficult and in some cases, technically unfeasible.
  • Another problem appears with the principle itself – there is no clarity on how exactly the damages should be calculated.
  • This ambiguity can cause problems and the principle tends to be used differently in different cases.

‘Precautionary Principle’

  • The ‘Precautionary Principle, expressed in the Rio Declaration, stipulates that where there are “threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
  • ‘Onus of Proof under this Principle is on the actor or the developer to show that the action is environmentally friendly.

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