Move to dilute the powers of National Green Tribunal is unfortunate

Newspapers have reported that the effectiveness of the National Green Tribunal is likely to be toned down. Reason being given is that it is creating hell of a volume of work for the government agencies. Environment department points out that their officials are very busy in defending cases in the tribunal.  Another department is complaining that they lack infrastructure to pursue environment related cases in the courts and tribunals. Their general complaint is that environmental issues pursued in the NGT have become a major hurdle in starting and completion of the projects. This was due to a few directions issued by it during its working during last about four years. This shows the diffidence of the agencies responsible for proper maintenance of the civic services. This is like putting cat before the horse. If they performed their job well the need for directions from the courts or the NGT for that matter would not have arisen. Normal refrain of the agencies remain that regular inspections are conducted by them and violations if any are being suitably taken up. It is strange that violations in the form of encroachments on the pavements and haphazard waste dumping etc are not visible from a naked eye in such inspections.

National Green Tribunal has been set up after the parliament passed an enabling legislation in 2010. This happened after numerous directions of the Supreme Court of India and recommendations of the Law commission. This took more than 20 years of hard work by the environmental and other civil society activists to give birth to this tribunal. In the 1980’s and 1990’s many PILs filed in the apex court enabled the development a workable environmental law in India. The lower courts and even High Courts were not able to effectively and promptly dispose of the environment related complaints and cases. Even the functioning of the National Green Tribunal was delayed by the skewed interest of the government agencies to ensure its effective functioning. Once it started functioning it gave some good directions and made the government agencies to feel the pinch. All of them are now grumbling about filing affidavits and spending their time in the tribunal at the cost of valuable time in their offices.

NGT has issued some valid directions and also some impracticable ones. One of them being that no completion certificate be issued to the unauthorized constructions projects falling under the 10 km radius of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary. It appears a little too much especially when a large number of such projects of at various stages of completion. As it is, getting a completion certificate for even a properly authorized building is almost impossible with requirement of several clearances and hawkish attitude of the officials. This is definitely likely to cause resentment among the people and become a reason for the government to make the NGT ineffective.

One of the stringent directions relate to the waste dumping on Yamuna floodplains based on the ‘polluter pays principle.’ It has directed the DDA to scrap the Yamuna Riverfront project. The ‘polluter pays principle’ envisages that the person responsible for generating waste is also responsible for its disposal and must pay for remediation of any harmful effects of its generation and disposal. As is very clear by now that waste disposal has now become a serious problem now and is also serious health effects because it contains many harmful substances including toxic chemicals and pesticides. After the attack on WTC in New York a huge amount of waste was generated this also included hazardous waste. A large quantity of material like steel, aluminum etc also formed part of this waste which could be recycled and used. A huge quantity of this waste as also other waste of the developing countries landed in the developing countries including India. Even the waste of the Iraq war came to India in the fully loaded ships. All this was in violation of the international and UN conventions in this regard. The apex court had to put a ban on such imports and issued guidelines for hazardous waste and other disposal. This also included the guidelines for disposal of ships which is a big source waste and also provides employment in dismantling of old ships.

All these directions, along with the international pressure for implementation of international law and conventions, resulted in development of a reasonably good environmental law regime in India. Establishment of NGT was a part of this process and its dilution, which appears to have become the talking point in governmental circles, is likely to be very unfortunate. It may be mentioned that the various tribunals set up by the government after 1985 have been very successful in prompt disposal of the cases and giving much wanted relief to the citizens which was hard to come by in the normal judicial process. Their functioning is resented by the bureaucracy as it creates unwanted work for them and is a check on their lethargy and arbitrariness. Since the tribunals are manned by the judicial and other experts and are not bound by the strict rules and procedures the relief for citizenry is prompt and effective. Any adverse effect on their functioning is likely cause strong resentment in the general public.

Citizen’s reporter
Dr. P S Nerwal

Member, Railway Claims Tribunal (R).