The Supreme Protector of Environment in India – National Green Tribunal

The Earth has provided us with the air to breathe, the soil we live on and the trees which provide us with oxygen along with other flora and fauna. All these elements combined constitute the environment. It would have been impossible for human beings if our earth had not provided us with such a supportive environment.

Introduction

In recent times, due to the surge in urbanization, it has been observed that there is a steady decline in the quality of the environment around us. Human activities like pollution, exploitation of resources, and many more have it the biggest issue surrounding our human race. Also, the right to a healthy environment is a Fundamental Right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Thus, to protect and preserve our environment from such practices and to prevent people’s rights from being violated, the Government of India has promulgated a tribunal known as the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which has served as the supreme protector of the Environment by making certain laws which prohibit the citizens of India in polluting our environment and promotes the notion of ‘Green Earth, Clean Earth’.

Overview of the NGT

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The Government of India, on 18th October 2010, laid the foundation of the National Green Tribunal under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010. The main objective behind the establishment was to provide a forum that would help in effective and speedy disposal of disputes relating to environmental conservation and protection and also seeking compensation for damages to those people who faced the wrath of the violation of the environmental laws. With the foundation of the National Green tribunal, India became the third country in the world to set up such a specialized tribunal for preservation and protection of the environment after Australia and New Zealand.

Composition of NGT

The National Green Tribunal comprises of:

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Chairperson, who shall be appointed by the Central Government in consultation with the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and hold office for a term of 5 years and shall not be eligible for re-appointment. The Chairperson is Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel.

Judicial and Expert members: They are appointed by a selection committee that is formed by the Central Government and they shall also hold office for a term of 5 years and are not eligible for re-appointment. There shall be a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 20 judicial and expert members in the tribunal.

The National Green Tribunal has five places of sittings which are New Delhi (the principal place of sitting); Bhopal; Kolkata; Pune; Chennai.

Powers and Jurisdiction of NGT

The National Green Tribunal has the power to exercise its jurisdiction over all the civil cases which involve the question of the environment which includes the enforcement of legal right relating to the environment. The Tribunal is a statutory adjudicatory body like the normal courts, so they have the original jurisdiction to hear the cases but it also comprises of appellate jurisdiction to hear the cases as a court. The Tribunal as established by a statute is not bound to follow the procedure as per the Civil Procedure Code (CPC), 1908 but it shall be guided by the principles of Natural Justice. Any order/decree passed by the tribunal is treated as a decree of the civil court and while doing so, they need to keep in mind the application of principles like sustainable development, the polluter pays principle, etc.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has the jurisdiction to try civil cases under the following seven laws which are concerned with the environment:

  1. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974
  2. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act of 1977
  3. The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980
  4. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981
  5. The Environment (Protection) Act of 1986
  6. The Public Liability Insurance Act of 1991
  7. The Biological Diversity Act of 2002
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Thus, if any violation takes place within the ambit of these laws can be filed in the National Green Tribunal.

Remedies and Penalties

The National Green Tribunal provides a remedy to all those people whose legal right relating to the environment was violated and punishes those who have caused significant harm to the environment along with the violation of a person’s legal right in relation to the environment. The remedies provided by National Green Tribunal are:

  1. Relief and compensation to the victims of pollution and other environmental damage (including accident occurring while handling any hazardous substance)
  2. Restitution of the property damaged
  3. Restitution of the environment for such area or areas, as the Tribunal may think fit.

The penalties imposed by the Tribunal are as follows:

  1. Imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years
  2. fine which may extend to ten crore rupees
  3. Both fine and imprisonment

Achievements and Challenges of the National Green Tribunal

The National Green Tribunal, since its inception, has played a crucial role as the protector of environmental regulation bypassing stringent orders ranging from pollution to deforestation to waste management. It acts as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism which helps in the effective and speedy disposal of cases within 6 months and minimum costs which reduces the burden of litigation relating to environmental matters.

With what the National Green tribunal has achieved, there have been certain situations and circumstances, where the National Green Tribunal failed to provide justice to the environment or its authority, was undermined:

  1. Lack of proper jurisdiction: As seen above, the National Green Tribunal has an original as well as appellate jurisdiction but is limited only to the seven environmental laws. Two other acts i.e. Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 have been kept out of NGT’s jurisdiction. Thus, this sometimes hampers the crucial decisions to be taken for the preservation of forests.
  2. Decisions of NGT are undermined by the High Courts: Another problem which is faced by the National Green Tribunal is that the decisions passed by the tribunal are undermined by the High Courts since if the aggrieved party is not satisfied with the decision of the tribunal, they approach the High Court under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution which asserts the fact that High Court is a superior authority then NGT.
  3. Lack of clarity in the NGT Act, 2010: One of the weaknesses which the National Green Tribunal faces is the lack of clarity in its statute which the very foundation of its establishment. As mentioned above, the decisions of the tribunal can be challenged in the High Court which undermines its authority since the statute is silent about what type of decisions pronounced by the tribunal can be challenged.
  4. Delay in Justice Delivery: Delay in justice delivery is one of the root cause problems which the legal framework in India whether it be the High Court or the Supreme Court faces and the same applies to the National Green Tribunal. The main reasons for this delay are:
  5. A limited number of regional branches
  6. The lack of financial and human resources
  7. Repercussions on the economic growth of the country

All these challenges faced by the National Green Tribunal have violated the very basic objective for which the tribunal was established i.e. disposal of appeals within 6 months.

Suggestions and Conclusion

The Supreme Court, in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, observed the setting up of environment courts which were reiterated again and again from time to time, and thus the National Green Tribunal was established later in 2010. In my opinion, the tribunal has failed to achieve the objectives for which it was incepted and thus the need for environmental courts in India is still a need.

Some suggestions which might help in bringing an efficient and effective framework for environment conservation would be:

  1. A framework for setting up ‘Environmental Courts’ should be drafted by the legislature and it should be provided jurisdiction which is spread across every sector of the environment.
  2. The authority of these courts should not be undermined by any of the High Courts and only in the cases of grievous environmental matters, the Supreme Court can have the jurisdiction to hear such cases in an appeal from the environmental courts.

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