Supreme Court pulls up environment ministry over ‘diluting green standards’
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had found faults with the ministry’s 2017 notification by which new norms for effluent discharge by sewage treatment plants (STPs) in waterbodies were laid down. It held that the new notification would lead to deterioration of the water quality and prescribed stricter standards based on the recommendations of an expert committee.
The Supreme Court on Monday remarked that the ministry of environment should also act like a “ministry for environment”, bemoaning that environmental standards have been constantly diluted in the recent past.
“You must show it is a ministry for environment and not just ‘of environment’. You (ministry) have been constantly diluting the environmental standards. That’s all that has been happening,” commented a bench headed by justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud while hearing an appeal by the central government against an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2019.
NGT had found faults with the ministry’s 2017 notification by which new norms for effluent discharge by sewage treatment plants (STPs) in waterbodies were laid down. It held that the new notification would lead to deterioration of the water quality and prescribed stricter standards based on the recommendations of an expert committee.
While the expert committee had suggested a timeframe of seven years for existing STPs to switch to higher sewage treatment criteria, the tribunal directed that the existing STPs should apply these norms “without any delay”. The NGT had further held that standards recommended for mega and metropolitan cities will also apply to the rest of the country.
The Union government challenged this order before the Supreme Court and asked for an immediate stay on the NGT judgment too.
When the matter was taken up by the court on Monday, the bench, which also included justices R Subhas Reddy and S Ravindra Bhat, questioned the imminent need for a stay of the tribunal’s judgment.
“What is the stay that you are seeking for? Should there be greater pollution? What is the harm in keeping the pollution low? Tribunal’s order has only ensured there is lesser pollution going into the water,” the bench asked additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati, who appeared for the Centre.
Bhati, on her part, tried to show that the NGT did not even accept the recommendations of its own committee while directing that STPs should immediately upgrade and conform to the stricter standards on effluent discharge. She pointed out that upgradation was a time-taking exercise and that the 2017 notification was issued by the ministry after due deliberation.
“No. We will not stay the order. You should also protect the environment,” retorted the bench, saying it was only issuing notices to the petitioners before the NGT and the central pollution control board at this juncture.
The court also tagged the Centre’s appeal with the appeal filed by the municipal corporation of greater Mumbai against the same order of the NGT.
Some of the recent alterations by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) to environmental norms have been criticised by environmentalists while some of them have been challenged in court.
In March, the Supreme Court had agreed to scrutinise the Centre’s 2013 notification that exempted environmental clearance for road expansion projects involving national highways which are less than 100 kilometres long. It also sought to know why MoEFCC was yet to appoint an independent regulator to grant environmental clearances despite the court’s directives in 2011 and 2014. The issue had come up when the court heard a plea against a West Bengal government’s decision to construct five rail overbridges at the cost of chopping 356 trees.
Similarly, hearing the Char Dham road-widening case, the top court in September 2020 directed that the width of the road be 5.5 metres, based on the 2018 notification issued by the ministry of road transport and highways. Later, the ministry amended its notification, allowing the road width to be 10 metres and asked for a review of the previous order of the court. The review plea is still pending.
In 2018, the environment ministry amended the coastal zone rules to give relief to projects that started in the fragile coastal areas without required clearances. The 2011 coastal regulation zone (CRZ) notification was amended in March 2018, allowing retroactive approvals in some cases where the construction had commenced before the date of this notification without the requisite CRZ clearance.
In a judgment in April 2020, the Supreme Court had held that the concept of ‘ex post facto’ environmental clearance (EC) was against the fundamental principles of environmental jurisprudence. It said that allowing industrial projects to operate without EC would prove detrimental to the environment and lead to irreparable degradation. Significantly, this verdict had come at a time when the draft of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020, to replace the EIA notification 2006, was floated. The new law proposed a lifeline for industrial projects that start operating without a valid EC. It is yet to be notified.
“The issue of dilution of environmental norms is very serious, especially when the EIA draft notification of 2020 proposes to pave way for further relaxations. Development and environment have to go hand-in-hand as enshrined under the principle of sustainable development. But when it comes to primacy, we must choose the environment, for the present and for the intergenerational ecological justice. Future generations possess a legal right to a clean and healthy environment,” said lawyer Gaurav Kumar Bansal, who has been associated with several environment-related cases before the NGT and the Supreme Court.