In an unusual move, at least 18 key cases already heard and reserved for judgment by different benches of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) will now be re-heard by the bench of NGT chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel. These cases include petitions challenging the environmental clearance to the Rs 11,700-crore Char Dham highway project in Uttarakhand and selection of experts for a committee formed to resolve conflicting recommendations on the 2,000-MW Lower Subansiri hydel project on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border.
Also on the list: relocation of the Inland Container Depot, Tughlakabad, for causing significant air pollution in Delhi; stopping illegal construction inside a bird sanctuary in Agra and controlling groundwater exploitation in Punjab.
Re-hearing a case is not common. As per practice, after a bench reserves judgment, it may seek further hearing if circumstances call for it or refer it to another bench for re-hearing only in the event of unavailability of a member of the bench due to death, recusal or retirement.
On August 31, different NGT benches released 17 cases from “being reserved” and “listed to be reheard” in Court No 1, the chairperson’s bench. “After hearing, the judgment was reserved, however, it has not been pronounced within a
month. Hence, it is released from being reserved and list it to be reheard,” identical orders said.
Some of these cases were listed for rehearing before the NGT chairman’s bench on August 4. In some, re-hearing has begun. “This is unfortunate and should have never happened. This is also such a waste of judicial time. A bench can release a reserved judgment citing specific reasons. But not pronouncing judgment within a month, unless that is specified in the NGT rules, is not a reason,” said Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhawan.
“I am not aware of any order of the Supreme Court which mandates that a case reserved for judgment should be released because the judgment could not be pronounced within a month of reserving a case,” said advocate Ritwik Dutta, the lawyer in two cases that have been “released” for rehearing.
“This is unprecedented. Delay in delivering final judgments is not uncommon. So it is for the Tribunal to spell out why rehearing was necessary,” said advocate Sanjay Upadhyay, the lawyer in three cases to be reheard.
The first decision to rehear a case reserved for judgment came on August 6 when NGT chairperson Goel’s bench listed the Char Dham case, which was reserved for judgment by another bench this May. Goel’s bench over-ruled the objection raised by the petitioner’s lawyer. Aggrieved, he moved Supreme Court which on August 27 directed the NGT chairman to let the original bench decide the case.
“Since the matter appears to be a complex one and has been heard over several days, we take it that the rehearing will only be on some final aspects. This being the case, we. request the Chairman to grant at least one clear day to the same tribunal to finally dispose of the matters before it,” the apex court said.
In compliance, the NGT chairman’s bench listed the case before the original bench. On September 4, however, the original bench said it was “of the opinion that the matter is heard by a larger bench” due to “the complexity of the issue involved.”
“In the interest of justice and people’s faith in the court, judicial procedures should remain sacrosanct. Particularly after the direction of the SC, the bench that reserved the judgment should have heard and decided the case which does not involve any major legal interpretation requiring a larger bench at this stage. Given the scale of devastation in the mountains, rehearing also defeats the urgency of the issue,” said senior advocate Sanjay Parikh, the petitioner’s lawyer in the case.