India’s ‘go green’ mission: National Green Tribunal, Pune sows landmark judgments
The statutory status of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), during its establishing years, had raised concerns regarding its effectiveness. However, all doubts have been put to rest after the court, referred to as a quasi-judicial body, continues to give out landmark judgements over the past few years.
The Principle bench of the tribunal came down hard on officials of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) for undermining its authority by calling it a quasi-judicial body. The civic body had to apologise to the tribunal and withdraw the circular in question. While it maybe one of its kind, this is not a singular incident of the NGT making its presence felt.
The passing of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, gave birth to the Principle Bench of the NGT which started operation on 18 October 2010. Within three years - on August 17, 2013 - the Western zone bench of NGT was launched in Pune. The Western zone has multiple landmark judgments to its credit within four years of its inception.
Landmark judgements passed by western zone bench, NGT
Foreign nationals allowed to approach the tribunal
Justice VR Kingaonkar was the first judicial member while Dr Ajay Deshpande was first appointed as expert member of NGT, Western Zone. The judicial-expert member duo was part of the bench which passed the judgment which allowed foreign nationals to approach the tribunal.
The landmark court order reads, “It [Section 2(j)] includes ‘an individual’, whether a national or a person who is not a citizen of India. We need not, therefore, go into 8(J) Miscellaneous Application Number 32 and 33 of 2014 NGT (WZ) details of nationality of Betty Alvares. Once it is found that any person can file the proceeding relating to environment dispute, it goes without saying that the Application of Betty Alvares is maintainable, irrespective of the question of her nationality.”
Asim Sarode, the legal counsel to Alvares, claims that the Western Zone has opened a new avenue for people concerned about the environment. Sarode remembers the case of Ramdas Koli against the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF). Koli represented a fishermen association named ‘Paramparik Macchimar Bachao Kruti Samiti’ himself.
A section of the final court order reads, “True, the applicants have not presented the application in the regular format, as required under the NGT (Practices and Procedure) Rules, 2011...Even so, we do not think it proper to reject the application ruthlessly, at the outset only because there are certain defects in the pleadings and the format.” The tribunal directed the respondents to pay ₹30 crore – ₹10 crore by ONGC and ₹20 crore from JNPT – to the aggrieved families.
Fine for burning garbage
Expert member Dr Deshpande, a Doctor of Environment Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B), along with the current judicial member of the western zone, Justice Umesh Salvi, was a part of the case which levied a fine on garbage burning all over the country as a part of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Under these rules constituted by the NGT, a person can be fined ₹5,000 to ₹25,000 for burning garbage.
The case was filed at the Principle Bench of Chairman of NGT, Justice Swatanter Kumar, by Mrs Almitra Patel and had a total of 72 respondents.
Southern Zone has least number of pending cases
According to the Coffee Table Book published by NGT in the year 2016, the number of pending cases at the Western Zone bench was 268 as against 812 filed cases. Made operational around the same time as the Western Zone, the Central Zone had 559 pending cases by the end of 2016 as against 1,299 filed cases.
The total number of cases filed until 2016 is the highest in the Southern Zone - 2,317. The bench was made operational in 2012, a year before Central and Western zones. However, the number of pending cases was the least in Southern Zone with 210 cases pending at the end of 2016.
The least number of cases filed and pending are at the Eastern Zone, 1,667 and 227 respectively. This bench came into existence in 2014.
The most number of cases that seek justice at NGT’s doorstep are water-related, according to the in-house publication, whereas forest-related issues are least in number.
The western zone will complete four years this August and local activists like Sarang Yadwadkar, who travelled to Delhi for earlier cases, are thankful for its existence. Yadwadkar has filed a petition against the potential harm that the upcoming government project of Pune Metro Rail will have on the river-bed of River Mula-Mutha.
However, does this mean that the tribunal is serving its purpose? Renowned Ecologist, Madhav Gadgil, does not think so. When asked if his purpose of fighting for environmental issues was furthered by formation of the western zone, he proudly announces that he has been fortunate enough to not have to deal with any kind of court in his life.
Gadgil, while not completely dismissing the role of the judiciary, claims that if an environmental issue reached the stage where a court has to intervene, it has probably worsened beyond repair. However, he said, that for people who care about the environment and look up to the judiciary for justice, NGT is a great platform. Projects like the Pune metro, he believes, caters to the real estate section while also damaging the environment. Providing insight into the effects of establishing bodies like NGT, Gadgil pointed out that issues like photo opportunity activism and empty hype are on the rise.
However, citing examples like stone quarrying on a massive scale in Kolhapur, Maharashtra and Kerala, he claimed that of 1,650 existing mines, only 150 had the legal right to exists. In such a case, where the involved people are most likely armed, NGT is more of a damage control system.