In a case on Monday (02.March.2021), the Supreme Court overturned a National Green Tribunal decision dismissing an appeal challenging the award of environmental clearance for the development of the Vishakhapatnam Greenfield International Airport.
Facts of the Case
In the present case, the Proposer or the project applicant for the construction of the Greenfield International Airport of Visakhapatnam was the fifth Respondent. As per the rules and regulations, to seek environmental clearance, he applied to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climatic Change. The Ministry after following the prescribed procedure approved the construction of the said airport via order dated 14.08.2017.
On November 13 2017, the Appellant filed the appeal petition in the NGT. Although, according to Section 19, the appeal had to be preferred within 30 days of the Order passed. In the present case, along with the appeal, the Appellant applied for the condonation of delay. They also gave the reason that the documents were voluminous and the matter was in the need of some technical assistance, the communication got delayed and requested for condonation of delay in the interest of justice.
The Appellant’s application along with the appeal was rejected by the National Green Tribunal. After being aggrieved by this, the Appellants approached the Supreme Court. Here the issue before the Supreme Court was to gauge that the NGT’s approach towards the issue of limitation was right or not.
Pleadings made before the Court
In the present case, the contentions made by the learned Counsel on behalf of the Appellant were mainly twofold. It was argued that according to Section 16, it was necessary to communicate the Orders to the parties in issue as well as to the general public and the provisions of the Section should be given a meaningful interpretation. It was further argued that in the present case, for justice to be served, the appeal should not be rejected mainly because it was time-barred. Lastly, it was also contended that according to the opinion of the NGT, the sufficient cause was not shown by the Appellants for condonation of delay was erroneous.
On the other hand, the learned Counsel on behalf of the Union of India, contended that it was noticed in the impugned Order that the Appellant had not made any kind of complaint and hence, the impugned order should not be disturbed. It was further submitted that the plea of the Appellant that she got to know about the environmental clearance on 24.08.2017 was baseless as according to the rules, it was necessary to publish the clearance within 7 days from the date of uploading.
In this case, the Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justice L. Nageshwar Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat made various observations. It was observed that there could be no doubt that a special law’s limitation duration should be construed according to its terms without reference to the Limitation Act. If it specified the duration or date during which applications or appeals could be favoured, and limited the consideration of applications for delay forgiveness to a set number of days, the Limitation Act would, without a doubt, be inapplicable under such circumstances.
It further observed that nothing in the NGT Act, in their opinion, prevented parties who would be directly affected by a project with environmental consequences from filing a complaint with the tribunal (NGT). Similarly, comparing the nature of legal advice available for challenging land acquisition to a challenge to environmental clearance, which required a detailed application of mind to technical issues, would be unfair and simplistic. If the NGT was approached, scientific or technical support, as well as expert professional legal advice, is required.
In conclusion, after taking into consideration all the findings and observations, the Court ruled that the impugned Orders passed by the NGT regarding the dismissal of the appeal should be set aside. It further directed that the parties were permitted to file an appeal before the NGT as the delay was now condoned.
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