Strengthening the National Green Tribunal is in our interest | Hindustan Times
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Strengthening the National Green Tribunal is in our interest

The strength of a democracy lies in the robustness of its institutions and people’s trust in them. The NGT orders may not have been palatable to governments, past and present, but if we have to face the environmental crisis head-on, the NGT’s continuation and independence should be non-negotiable.

opinion Updated: Dec 24, 2017 17:21 IST
On November 14, the National Green Tribunal expressed concern over the high pollution levels in Delhi, terming it as an ‘environmental and health emergency.
On November 14, the National Green Tribunal expressed concern over the high pollution levels in Delhi, terming it as an ‘environmental and health emergency.(HT)

In a social media interaction last week, Centre for Science and Environment’s director-general Sunita Narain said that if one had to pick the ‘2017 person of the year’, it would be the weather. She is spot on: From farmers’ distress (which had a huge impact on the recent Gujarat elections; it could also affect the coming elections in Rajasthan, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh) to floods, drought, and air pollution, weather-related events dominated this year’s news cycle. With climate change and rapid urbanisation becoming regular features, these weather-related crises could increase in the coming years, putting pressure on the country’s natural resources. In such trying times, it is critical that India ensures that its robust regulatory structures, such as the National Green Tribunal (NGT), are not weakened and their powers diluted. In an interview to a national daily after retiring as the NGT chairperson, Justice Swatanter Kumar, one of the toughest persons to head the tribunal, graciously said: “It doesn’t matter if one Swatanter goes, another will come, but the institution, the National Green Tribunal, must go on”.

The tribunal was set up in 2010 to quickly dispose of cases related to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources and till October this year, it has adjudicated on 20,696 cases. There are 3,024 cases pending before the court.

Despite its track record, there has been a concerted effort to scale down its operations. On December 3, the Supreme Court sought an explanation from the Centre regarding the non-filling of vacancies in the NGT’s principal and zonal benches which were affecting its functioning. According to a report, if urgent measures are not taken to appoint new judicial and expert members, the tribunal which has three courts in its principal bench in Delhi and four zonal benches (east, west, central and south) will soon be functioning with less than one-third of its sanctioned strength of 20.

Due to non-filling of vacancies, according to the retirement dates of judges accessed by a national daily, there will only be three judicial members and two expert members left after February 12, 2018. The reason for the delay is the Centre’s decision to change the process of appointments to NGT: Now instead of a senior judge, its chairperson will be recommended by a five-member panel but a majority of the other members in the panel will be recommended by the environment ministry. The amendment could render the NGT ineffective for adjudicating on environmental disputes and protecting fundamental rights, say experts.

The strength of a democracy lies in the robustness of its institutions and people’s trust in them. The NGT orders may not have been palatable to governments, past and present, but if we have to face the environmental crisis head-on, the NGT’s continuation and independence should be non-negotiable.