Understanding the National Green Tribunal
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has emerged as an important player in Indian environmental regulation. It has issued orders on a variety of issues–ranging from pollution to deforestation to waste management. It recently directed the Delhi government to de-register all diesel vehicles more than 10 years old–a decision being opposed by many stakeholders, including the Central Government.
In the interview below, environmental lawyer and CPR faculty Shibani Ghosh talks about the National Green Tribunal and it’s functioning. Shibani practices before the National Green Tribunal and has written on various issues of domestic environmental law and governance. She is currently editing a book on key principles of Indian environmental law.
Can you tell us about why and how was the NGT established?
The need to set up special environmental courts was highlighted by the Supreme Court of India in a series of judgments, the first one being in 1986 in the Oleum Gas Leak case, and by the Law Commission of India in its 186th report in 2003. The Court was of the opinion that environmental cases raised issues, which required technical knowledge and expertise, speedy disposal, and continuous monitoring, and therefore these cases should decided by special courts with necessary expertise and technical assistance.
The Parliament passed the National Environmental Tribunal Act, 1995 but it was never implemented. Subsequently, the National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997 was enacted under which the National Environment Appellate Authority was set up. There were several problems in the functioning of the Authority, including its limited mandate and key vacancies that the government did not fill. The Authority functioned till October 2010 and was replaced by the National Green Tribunal.
The National Green Tribunal was set up under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (NGT Act). The objective of the NGT Act is to provide effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to the protection of the environment. Even though the Act came into force on 2 June 2010, the first hearing of the Tribunal was held only in May 2011. The Tribunal suffered from serious ‘teething troubles’. Despite being a body constituted by an Act of Parliament, the Supreme Court had to intervene to ensure necessary administrative arrangements were made by various branches of the government for the Tribunal to become functional.
How does the Tribunal function?
The members of the Tribunal are a mix of persons with a legal/judicial background and those with knowledge and expertise in environmental issues or with administrative experience. There is a principal bench of the Tribunal in New Delhi and four regional benches in Bhopal, Kolkata, Pune and Chennai. These are ‘co-equal benches’ i.e. the principal bench is not ‘higher’ in a judicial hierarchy than the other benches. Each bench has a specified geographical jurisdiction. For instance, cases arising from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Pondicherry, and Lakshadweep have to be filed in the Southern bench in Chennai. Occasionally ‘circuit benches’ are also constituted. These are specially constituted benches, which visit a particular city for a few days to hear cases relating to that state.
The Tribunal has original (to be the first judicial forum to hear a case) and appellate (review a regulatory authority's decision) jurisdiction with regard to the implementation of seven environmental laws. These are 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. The notable exception is the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 which is not included. A significant number of cases that may arise under the Wildlife (Protection) Act are criminal cases–and the Tribunal has no jurisdiction over criminal cases.
The Tribunal has original jurisdiction over all civil cases raising a substantial question relating to environment and which arise out of the implementation of the seven laws. This makes the Tribunal a crucial avenue for grievance redressal for persons who wish to highlight environmental issues which have serious implications but are not linked to a single government decision.
For instance, cases relating to the widespread pollution in the River Ganga and Yamuna, increasing air pollution in the National Capital Region, and illegal mining activities in different parts of the country have all been brought before the Tribunal under its original jurisdiction.
While exercising its appellate jurisdiction, the Tribunal decides cases in which a regulatory approval or consent granted (or rejected) by the relevant government agency is being challenged. These approvals or consents are those issued under the seven laws. For example, environmental clearances under the EIA Notification 2006, forest clearances under the Forest (Conservation) Act, and consents issued by the State Pollution Control Boards under the Water Act and the Air Act are included.
Who can approach the NGT?
According to the NGT Act, an aggrieved person can file a case before the Tribunal, and could be an individual, a company, a firm, an association of persons (like an NGO), even if not registered or incorporated, a trustee, a local authority (like a municipal corporation), or a government body (like the State Pollution Control Board). The person need not be directly affected by the project or development in question, but could be any person who is interested in protecting and preserving the environment. There is a time period within which the case has to be brought before the Tribunal, which varies according to the type of case.
What kind of decisions can the NGT deliver, and what is the timeline?
The Tribunal has the power to cancel an approval or consent granted. It can also issue a stop work notice or an interim stay order. It can direct the constitution of a committee of experts to carry out fact finding or monitor the implementation of its orders; and direct concerned government agencies to take affirmative action to prevent or mitigate environmental damage. It can also direct the demolition of unauthorized construction. The Tribunal also has jurisdiction to order payment of compensation to victims of environmental damage or an environmental restoration fine to a government agency for restitution of damaged environment.
The NGT Act requires the Tribunal to hear cases as expeditiously as possible and endeavour to decide the case within six months from the date on which the case is filed. Despite this indicative timeline, it often takes longer as all parties have to be heard and allowed to present necessary evidence, and sometimes, the Tribunal initiates special investigations into facts, which may take up additional time.
Is the verdict of the NGT binding?
The decision of the NGT is binding on the parties, unless they approach the Supreme Court in appeal and the NGT’s order is either stayed or reversed. Failure to comply with the orders of the Tribunal could lead to a fine or imprisonment of the person responsible.
You can read more about Shibani Ghosh’s work on the National Green Tribunal below: