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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Can’t afford to remain mute spectator: SC upholds suo motu power for NGT

The court rejected the argument that NGT is a Tribunal and a creature of statute and as such, cannot act on its own motion or exercise the power of judicial review or act suo motu in discharge of its functions.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: October 8, 2021 8:05:58 am
National Green Tribunal newsThe National Green Tribunal (File photo)

Ruling that the “National Green Tribunal (NGT) is vested with suo motu power in discharge of its functions under the NGT Act”, the Supreme Court on Thursday said the Tribunal, “with the distinct role envisaged for it, can hardly afford to remain a mute spectator when no one knocks on its door”.

Deciding a batch of appeals on suo motu jurisdiction of the NGT, a bench of Justices A M Khanwilkar, Hrishikesh Roy and C T Ravikumar pointed out that the SC had ruled that the right to a healthy environment is part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India and recognised that NGT is set up under the Constitutional mandate to enforce Article 21 with respect to the environment.

The court rejected the argument that NGT is a Tribunal and a creature of statute and as such, cannot act on its own motion or exercise the power of judicial review or act suo motu in discharge of its functions.

Justice Hrishikesh Roy, writing for the bench, said this “duty to safeguard Article 21 rights cannot stand on a narrow compass of interpretation” and “procedural provisions must be allowed to fall in step with the substantive rights that are invoked in the environmental domain, in larger public interest”.

“To be effective in its domain, we need to ascribe to the NGT a public responsibility to initiate action when required, to protect the substantive right of a clean environment and the procedural law should not be obstructive in its application,” said the SC.

The NGT, said the judgment, was conceived as a complimentary specialised forum to deal with all environmental multi-disciplinary issues hitherto dealt with by the High Courts and SC, “and it would be appropriate thus to assume that similar power to initiate suo motu proceedings should also be available with” it.

The bench, which went into the history of formation of the NGT and the evolution of environmental jurisprudence, pointed out that the Tribunal is the institutionalisation of the developments made by the court in environment law and said “these progressive steps have allowed it to inherit a very broad conception of environmental concerns”. It added that the “functions” of the NGT “therefore, must not be viewed in a cribbed manner, which detracts from the progress already made in the Indian environmental jurisprudence”.

A hands-off mode, when faced with exigencies requiring immediate and effective response, would debilitate the NGT from discharging its responsibility, the court said, adding this must be ruled out in the interest of justice.

Referring to looming dangers of environmental disasters due to climate change, the court said, “It is vital for the wellbeing of the nation and its people, to have a flexible mechanism to address all issues pertaining to environmental damage and resultant climate change so that we can leave behind a better environmental legacy.”

The SC added that “institutions which are often addressing urgent concerns gain little from procedural nitpicking, which are unwarranted in the face of both the statutory spirit and the evolving nature of environmental degradation. Not merely should a procedure exist but it must be meaningfully effective to address such concerns. The role of such an institution cannot be mechanical or ornamental”.

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