Even as the National Green Tribunal is riddled with vacancies across its benches, the Centre has passed a notification allowing the NGT chairperson to “constitute a single-member bench” in “exceptional circumstances.”
The Ministry of Environment and Forests on December 1 amended the National Green Tribunal (Practices and Procedure) Rules, 2011. According to the earlier rules, the bench consisted of “two or more members” with at least one judicial member and another expert. However, the amended rule has included an additional clause which said: “Provided that in exceptional circumstances the chairperson may constitute a single-member bench.” The notification does not define the “exceptional circumstances”.
At present, the regional benches in Chennai and Kolkata are both functioning with one judicial member each and the expert members have retired. The expert member in the principal bench in Delhi is expected to retire later this week.
The NGT bar association president, Pinaki Misra, termed the move “very lazy governance”.
“Instead of the government taking the time to fill up vacancies, it is now attempting to reduce the bench to a single-member,” he told The Indian Express. “This may not hold water as a notification cannot amend the principal Act,” he said.
Senior advocate Ritwick Dutta said the essence of the NGT was to have a bench comprising both “technical and judicial” members. “Often environment issues have a very strong scientific component, for which the expert members are important. Otherwise, the tribunal will function no differently from a high court,” he said. “Vacancies also affect the institutional memory which are important to keep the continuity in hearing cases.”
Earlier this year, the Centre tweaked the norms for appointment and selection of chairpersons of various tribunals including the NGT.
Though the NGT Act, 2010, made it mandatory for the NGT chairperson to be a sitting judge of the Supreme Court or Chief Justice of High Court, the rules instead, said that even a judicial member or expert member for three years is qualified to be a chairperson of the NGT.