Observing that all five zonal Benches of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) are equally powerful and that their orders would be applicable pan India, the Madras High Court has disapproved of a 2017 Central notification which terms the north zone Bench in Delhi as the principal Bench.
What is National Green Tribunal (NGT)?
- It is a specialised body set up under the National Green Tribunal Act (2010) for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources.
- With the establishment of the NGT, India became the third country in the world to set up a specialised environmental tribunal, only after Australia and New Zealand, and the first developing country to do so.
- It is a specialized body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues.
- The Tribunal shall not be bound by the procedure laid down under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, but shall be guided by principles of natural justice.
- The Tribunal’s dedicated jurisdiction in environmental matters shall provide speedy environmental justice and help reduce the burden of litigation in the higher courts. The Tribunal is mandated to make and endeavour for disposal of applications or appeals finally within 6 months of filing of the same.
- The NGT has five places of sittings, New Delhi ,Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai are the other four.
Structure of NGT
The current tribunal comprises 10-20 judicial members and an equal representation of subject experts, as mandated by the act to maintain a balance.
- The Tribunal comprises of the Chairperson, the Judicial Members and Expert Members. They shall hold office for term of five years and are not eligible for reappointment.
- The Chairperson is appointed by the Central Government in consultation with Chief Justice of India (CJI).
- A Selection Committee shall be formed by central government to appoint the Judicial Members and Expert Members.
- There are to be least 10 and maximum 20 full time Judicial members and Expert Members in the tribunal.
Qualifications for appointment of Chairperson, Judicial Member and Expert Member. –
1. A person shall not be qualified for appointment as the Chairperson or Judicial Member of the Tribunal unless he is, or has been, a Judge of the Supreme Court of India or Chief Justice of a High Court: Provided that a person who is or has been a Judge of the High Court shall also be qualified to be appointed as a Judicial Member.
2. A person shall not be qualified for appointment as an Expert Member, unless he,-
a. has a degree in Master of Science (in physical sciences or life sciences) with a Doctorate degree or Master of Engineering or Master of Technology and has an experience of fifteen years in the relevant field including five years practical experience in the field of environment and forests (including pollution control, hazardous substance management, environment impact assessment, climate change management, biological diversity management and forest conservation) in a reputed National level institution; or
b. has administrative experience of fifteen years including experience of five years in dealing with environmental matters in the Central or a State Government or in a reputed National or State level institution.
Methodology of NGT
The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 under Section 19 gives the Tribunal power to regulate its own procedure. Additionally, the Tribunal is not bound by procedure under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 or the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 and is guided by principles of natural justice. However, the Tribunal is vested with the powers of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure for discharging its functions.
Powers & Jurisdiction
- The Tribunal has jurisdiction over all civil cases involving substantial question relating to environment (including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment).
- Being a statutory adjudicatory body like Courts, apart from original jurisdiction side on filing of an application, NGT also has appellate jurisdiction to hear appeal as a Court (Tribunal).
- The Tribunal is not bound by the procedure laid down under the Code of Civil Procedure 1908, but shall be guided by principles of ‘natural justice’.
- While passing any order/decision/ award, it shall apply the principles of sustainable development, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.
- NGT by an order, can provide
- relief and compensation to the victims of pollution and other environmental damage (including accident occurring while handling any hazardous substance),
- for restitution of property damaged, and
- for restitution of the environment for such area or areas, as the Tribunal may think fit.
- An order/decision/award of Tribunal is executable as a decree of a civil court.
- The NGT Act also provides a procedure for a penalty for non compliance:
- Imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years,
- Fine which may extend to ten crore rupees, and
- Both fine and imprisonment.
- An appeal against order/decision/ award of the NGT lies to the Supreme Court, generally within ninety days from the date of communication.
- The NGT deals with civil cases under the seven laws related to the environment, these include:
- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974,
- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977,
- The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980,
- The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981,
- The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986,
- The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 and
- The Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
- Any violation pertaining to these laws or any decision taken by the Government under these laws can be challenged before the NGT.
- Two important acts – Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 have been kept out of NGT’s jurisdiction.
- One of its limitations is the ‘lack of environmental finesse’ of its expert members. Usually, the expert members are specialists in one particular field and not on environment as a whole.
For instance, an expert member who has been working on forests for many years would not be able to comprehend the challenges arising out of industrial pollution. NGT needs to establish principles and criteria to estimate fines, damages and compensation.It should also identify institutions and experts who can help it to scientifically estimate environmental damages, compensation and fines on a case-to-case basis.
- NGT has authorities similar to law-enforcement agencies but it is not like a regular court which has the power to adjudicate all types of disputes.
NGT has the power of enforcing laws on administrative agencies. It can only issue recommendations for punishment in a case, depending on the nature and gravity of the offence.
However, such punishment can be challenged in a court of law, which is the final authority, limiting the tribunal’s role.
- The NGT act mentions that court’s decisions can be challenged before the Supreme Court. In spite of this, petitioners have been invoking Article 226 (power of High Courts to issue certain writs) to challenge decisions before the High Courts, slowing down the litigation process.
This is possible because of a loophole in the act which doesn’t specify that NGT orders can be challenged only in the SC.