The western zone bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in Pune, which became operational on August 25, 2013, provided a platform for environment-conscious residents of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, union territories of Daman, Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli to raise various issues and concerns. The tribunal has delivered several important decisions and punished those whose actions have caused harm to the environment.
The NGT bench, initially through a two-member and then a single-member bench, used to hear at least 20 cases a day till it had to abruptly stop its operations on February 1, 2018, in the wake of a Supreme Court order.
Almost two years later, the Pune bench is likely to start functioning from February 1 this year. Ajay Jadhav explains why the tribunal had to stop functioning for two years, and what has changed since.
Introduction of amended rules by Centre
On December 1, 2017, the Union government introduced the NGT (practices and procedure) Amendment Rules, 2017, which enabled the NGT chairperson to constitute single-member benches to address cases. Accordingly, the NGT chairperson issued an order on December 5, 2017, that single-member benches were to be constituted across regions — a south zone bench at Chennai, a central zone bench at Bhopal, a western zone bench at Pune and an eastern zone bench at Kolkata — to conduct the business of the tribunal. These regional benches were fully empowered to deal with matters in accordance with the law.
But the NGT Western Zone Bar Association challenged the amendment and the chairperson’s orders in the Supreme Court, claiming they were illegal and ultra-vires to the provisions of the NGT Act, 2010, and NGT Rules, 2011.
Why the hearings stopped
The Supreme Court, on January 31, 2018, ordered that the NGT chairperson should not constitute a single-member bench but a division bench comprising one judicial member and an expert member. Hearings at all the single-member NGT benches, including Pune, had to be stopped till the appointment of the two additional members. While the Centre was supposed to make the appointments, it took almost two years to do so.
On January 2 this year, the NGT chairperson appointed an expert member, Siddhanta Das, for the western zone bench in Pune. In a circular, the tribunal stated that the western zone bench was likely to start functioning again by February 1 if the judicial member was appointed in time.
Video-conferencing facility as makeshift measure
To address cases filed at the western zone bench, the NGT had allocated certain days to hold hearings through video-conferencing, with bench members sitting in Delhi and litigants sitting in the tribunal office in Pune. This process, however, faced a number of technical hurdles and often, hearings had to be adjourned. As a result, the number of petitions filed in the NGT western zone bench fell significantly.
In July 2018, the NGT decided to set up a temporary bench for two months in Pune to reduce the backlog of cases. Later, the period was reduced from two months to three weeks.
Delay in appointments: matter goes to SC again
On November 14, 2018, the Supreme Court directed the Union government to file a detailed report regarding the status of appointments in the NGT. When the government sought more time, the court directed it to submit a report by December 10, 2018. Eventually, the apex court directed the Union government to complete the appointments expeditiously.
When Bombay HC quashed govt decision
In 2018, the Union government had decided to change the jurisdiction of the bench by removing Goa cases and adding them to the principal bench in Delhi. However, the Bombay High Court set aside the notification of the Union government to change the jurisdiction of the western zone bench.