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Green signal for green courts

The National Green Tribunal Bill that will set up for the first time a network of dedicated environmental courts in the country has been cleared by the Cabinet.

Written by Neha Sinha |
April 23, 2010 1:50:14 am

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) Bill that will set up for the first time a network of dedicated environmental courts in the country has been cleared by the Cabinet. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology,Environment has proposed certain amendments to the Bill. Now,in the wake of suggestions and protests in Parliament on Wednesday,Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has promised “amendments”. Neha Sinha examines the scope of the Bill and the controversies that surround it.

What does NGT mean?

The National Green Tribunal will be a network of civil courts dedicated to environment cases. This will mean that there will be a bar on the taking up of civil matters related to environment in other courts. The NGT will take

up issues that have a substantial environmental impact related to pollution,conservation of biodiversity,and damage to public health. One of the main aims of the NGT is to prevent incidents like the protracted case of the Bhopal gas tragedy where victims were not compensated for years. This will be enforced through Acts related to air and water pollution,the Environment Protection Act,Forest Conservation Act and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The Bill has been mooted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

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What are the criticisms that the Bill is facing?

Environmentalists hold that the environmental impacts like deformity of bodies or illnesses due to pollution or contamination (such as nuclear waste) take years,sometimes decades,to manifest themselves. The NGT,they argue,should broaden the five-year complaint period to a larger period of time,because the small time frame defeats the purpose of the NGT,especially in the wake of accidents like the recent radioactive leak in Delhi. Others have suggested that the Supreme Court’s forest panel,the Central Empowered Committee,be allowed to continue. The CEC is a recommendatory,expert body,which does not prescribe punishments but gives suggestions to the SC on environmental cases. Comments to the MoEF have also suggested that expert members from either private or other environment related background be included to take the emphasis away from those who have served in national institutions. The Parliamentary Standing Committee has suggested that all NGTs come up at one go,instead of in the staggered manner (state by state) that the Bill suggests.

What is the scope of the Bill and the penalties proposed?

For individuals and organisations,the penalties will be up to Rs 10 crore. For corporates,the penalties will be up to Rs 25 crore. Non-compliance would bring imprisonment up to five years. Complainants can approach the tribunal for aspects like river pollution,environmental contamination,environmental impact of cleared industrial or infrastructure projects,forest protection. For example,an individual can challenge a new project on environmental grounds. The Bill emphasises the “precautionary principle” and the “polluter pays principle”. Complainants can approach the court within a period of five years from an incident or violation of environmental Acts.

Who will be its members?

Each NGT bench will be headed by a chairperson who has either been a judge in the Supreme Court or has been a Chief Justice in the High Court. A judge of a High Court may be a judicial member. There will be an expert member with a doctorate or a masters degree in engineering or technology with 15 years of professional experience,including five years of field experience in the relevant area in a national-level institution. The Parliamentary Committee has suggested that judicial and expert members should number between 10 and 20.

How many courts will be set up under the NGT?

The Bill is deliberately ambiguous on the number of courts,waiting for inputs from Parliament on whether the courts will be at the district level or state level. The setting up of the NGT will mean the winding up of the National Environment Appellate Authority,which has been headless for some time now. It will also entail the winding up of the Centrally Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court,which was the SC’s forest bench,and has delivered some stellar recommendations,notably on cases related to Aravali mining.

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