Brushing aside suggestions that litigation on environmental grounds was resulting in halting or delaying investments worth “millions of dollars”, Chief Justice of India J S Khehar Saturday said courts intervene in such matters only when the government does not take adequate safeguards to protect the environment.
“When a programme is sponsored by the government, it is well within its framework to draw a policy that protects (the) environment. You (the government) may construct hotels, you may construct whatever you wish to, but have regulations in place for environmental protection. And no court can ever interfere,” Justice Khehar said at the inaugural function of a two-day international conference organised by the National Green Tribunal.
“The possibility of interference emerges when sea ports are constructed and the existing environment is altered, or when townships are raised without appropriately dealing with sewage and water disposal. That is when the courts intervene. The problem emerges when we allow industrialisation without taking adequate environmental measures,” he said.
The CJI was referring to a point made by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi during the function. While arguing for a balance in environment protection and development projects, Rohatgi had mentioned how large projects involving millions of dollars get delayed because of litigation that happens well after the investment is made and work is started. He proposed that there should be a procedure in which the project is assessed well in advance, not just for environment impact but also for its legality.
Rohatgi also argued that many smaller countries in India’s neighbourhood, including Maldives, handle their coastal zones in a much more efficient manner, while India, with its “restrictive” Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules, is suffering from reduced tourist inflow due to lack of adequate infrastructure near the coasts.
Justice Kehar, however, maintained that such “competition” with others might not be the best way to protect the environment. “Environment is not a matter of competition. Environment is not about we and they. Environment is a humanitarian concern,” the CJI said, adding that a certain amount of judicial and civil society activism was the need of the hour. “It is not about being over-proactive. But the time certainly is for being proactive,” he said, calling environmental justice “an intrinsic part of social justice”.
“Under the international convention on civil and political rights, all people in the world have a right to self determination. Each person in the world has a right to claim a pollution-free environment. And therefore, every such person is obliged when the civil society is adequately educated to project this proposition before a court of competent jurisdiction. Not professing beyond the jurisdiction of the court, but within the framework of a court’s jurisdiction, these civil and political rights of the individual can certainly be redressed,” the CJI said.
President Pranab Mukherjee, the chief guest at the function, said there was “no inherent contradiction” between environment protection and development activities but said there was a need to find “out-of-the-box solutions” to strike a better balance between the two.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said growth and development was “inevitable” and so was an “adverse impact on environment”. He said best practices from across the world needed to be imbibed in all the activities so that this adverse impact was restricted to the minimum. “That is how the concept of sustainable development has evolved over the last few decades,” he said.