The verdict, when it came, was strongly worded — but in language more lyrical than strictly legal. The Bombay High Court’s Panjim bench today quashed the Centre’s notification to move the western zone of National Green Tribunal in Pune — which handles all cases from Goa — to the NGT’s principal bench in New Delhi.
Making a strong case for not moving the NGT’s Pune office, Justice Gautam Patel and Justice N D Sardessai quoted John F Kennedy and James Baldwin on evidence and justice; pointed out how in this, a “time of apparently incessant strife and discord” in the country, Goa is a “kind and gentle land,” how its sunsets are “ridiculously brilliant” — and why the “unprotected” are the ones who need the most protection.
At the heart of his 47-page judgment was the argument that “access to justice” was a facet of the fundamental right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. From this, flowed the rest,.
“Above all, there is one overarching concern,” Justice Patel and Justice N D Sardessai wrote. “This is an extraordinary state, in more ways than one, a place where, perhaps more than anywhere else, sky, sea and earth meet. From horizon to horizon, it is a land of abundant richness. It is a land of confluences, where diverse strands meet and co-exist; and, in a time of apparently incessant strife and discord, it is still a mostly liberal land. It is a kind and gentle land, of a kind and gentle people. And it is also a land that, given its small size and small population, has had a wholly disproportionate influence on our art, culture, language, music, literature, architecture, history, design and more (even food, for many of what we consider our staples first came from here).
“Its greatest asset is one: its environment and its ecology — its rivers and riverbanks, its beaches, its lakes and clear streams, its dense forests, its low hills and fertile fields, its boulders and even trees shrouded with moss and vines and lichen in the rains, its ridiculously brilliant sunsets. One needs only to turn off an arterial road to either east or west to see all this first-hand, and all of it within but a few minutes.”
The case was intensely fought. It saw at least 25 petitioners and seven PILs, with the High Court itself filing a petition against the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest and State of Goa.
On August 10, the MoEF had notified a change that all matters coming up from Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli would be taken by NGT’s Principal bench in New Delhi, taking them away from NGT’s western Zone bench at Pune.
The Centre said that this was in the wake of a proposal from Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar on June 9, 2017, that raised issues such as lack of flight connectivity between Goa and Pune; loss of work hours with government officials stranded in Pune; the tab for stay in private hotels in Pune (each trip sees a cost of Rs 50,000, said the affidavit).
Instead of looking at an old proposal for a circuit bench in Goa, Parrikar wrote that in Delhi, the state could benefit from lawyers in Delhi and officials could avail of cheap accommodation at Goa Sadan and Goa Niwas.
The judgment pulled up the state government for looking at convenience of lawyers and respondents instead of that of the litigants. The order quoted American writer and social critic James Baldwin: “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges or the protective members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most — and listens to their testimony.”
“These words resound with us today,” Justice Patel and Justice N D Sardessai wrote. “If there is one thing that neither the State Government nor the MoEF did at any stage, it was to listen to the voice of those who most need the protection of environmental laws. The State Government seems to have assumed that it is in loco parentis vis-à-vis all litigants and has the authority, both moral and legal, to speak for them all. That authority is not just questioned before us today. It is flatly denied.”
The order also pointed that a flight ticket might not be always convenient to every petitioner as it showed that in one PIL all the petitioners were below the poverty line.
Debunking the key points moved in favour of moving the Pune bench to New Delhi, the order quoted from Kennedy’s inaugural words: “sincerity needs evidence.” And pointed that there was no rational basis for the move. In fact, the order underlines how Pune, being an IT hub, can allow digital transfer of legal documents and that it’s also a city “bursting with lawyers”.
“At a time and in an age when courts are considering branching out so that litigants are put to less inconvenience and less hardship, it strikes us as utterly extraordinary that any government should, in the guise of its own inconvenience or convenience, seek to shift a tribunal several thousand kilometres away and then claim that this is for the greater public good. Indeed it is not,” the order said.
That the NGT in Pune has so many cases from Goa, the order said, is because the people of Goa “perceive that there is something of value here to protect.”
“In our experience, one that none can deny, we have seen a very large number of worthy causes. Our duty, and that of every government too, must be to ensure that these attempts to protect the environment can be brought to a forum that is close at hand, where environmental issues can be addressed quickly, without having to travel inordinate distances, and at a cost that the poorest in the land, not just the well-heeled, can afford. These are, after all, struggles for a better tomorrow. This or that particular cause may be lost. But no cause should be allowed to be lost for want of trying. For that, we have those who petition us. Equally certainly, no cause should be allowed to be lost for want of a court. That is up to us, and to the government. For this is something none can deny: this is a land truly worth fighting for.”
Justice Patel’s NGT order is the latest sample of his characteristic style.
In an order of October 3, in a suit of alleged intellectual property infringement between GO Holdings Private Limited & 2 Others Versus Interglobe Aviation Limited (IndiGo) & others, Justice Patel said GoAir had “declared litigation war” on Indigo Airlines for using the domain name GoIndigo.in. Google was the second defendant since GoAir had taken exception to the use of ‘Go’ as a prefix. With “go” italicised in all of his two-page order, Justice Patel wrote: “For reasons that are presently unclear so far, Google India Limited, the 2nd Defendant, is also said to be liable….counsel for the Plaintiff grants that this is not because the word Go is also part of Google’s corporate and domain name (and much else besides). That is all to the good, for the alternative is unthinkable — we might otherwise be forced to ogle the Web.”
Before his appointment as a judge of the Bombay High Court in June 2013, Patel was a leading counsel taking up cases of corporate, commercial and constitutional law. He also appeared in a number of PILs related to environmental protection. He taught at the Government Law College and wrote a weekly newspaper column. (with ENS, Mumbai)