India is one the first three countries (the others are Australia and New Zealand) that have a dedicated all–encompassing Green Tribunal to deal with environmental rights and issues. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was established in India as a Fundamental Right to a Healthy Environment under Article 21 and giving judicial legitimacy to Principle 13 of the Rio Declaration. It was established on 18th October, 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010. The Tribunal is dedicated to the effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to the forest, environment, biodiversity, air, and water.

The NGT is a specialized body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues. The NGT started functioning since 4th July, 2011. The Principal Bench is based at New Delhi with circuit benches at Chennai, Bhopal, Pune and Kolkata so that it can reach the remote areas of India. The principal bench and the regional benches are all currently functional.

Establishment of the NGT has been a landmark achievement to protect the environmental diversity of India encompassing various sectors that come under the ambit of the Environmental Protection Act. Since the day of its establishment, NGT has shown pro-activeness as well as progressiveness in resolving controversial cases and has successfully been able to adjudicate disputes relating to environmental protection. Various cases that have been filed under the NGT have seen speedy adjudication processwhere this institution has proved to resolve many environmental disputes within the estimated time frame of six months. Moreover, pendency rates (the time a case is pending) have been reduced over time. As per the latest statistics 3,458 cases were disposed of from the total of 6,017 cases instituted under NGT, i.e. around 60 per cent in the year 2014.

Also, some cases which were earlier pending to get resolved under its predecessor’s regime, National Environment Appellate Authority, were resolved once NGT came into force. Looking at the fast adjudication process of NGT, in the year 2015, the Supreme Court transferred more than 300 cases (some of which have been pending for the last fourteen years) to the NGT for final decisions.

Landmark Judgments by the NGT

One of the landmark judgments by NGT includes the suspension of environmental clearance given to the South Korean steel major, Pohang Iron and Steel Company's (POSCO) 12 million ton plant in Orissa. It is believed to be the biggest Foreign Direct Investment in the country with an estimated cost of 12 billion dollars). Over the trial, the tribunal alleged that there was departmental bias in favor of the project by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF). NGT asked the Environment Ministry to review clearances after some local villages refused to consent the project under the pro-tribal Forest Rights Act, 2006.  NGT on 30th March 2012, in its order noted that the full impact of the project is yet to be measured, since environmental impact assessments were made only for a 4 million ton (MT) plant, not the full 12MT which POSCO plans to expand in future.

Tribal people in Orissa protesting against POSCO Iron and Steel Plant

Over the years, NGT verdicts have taken into consideration the utmost importance of sustainable development through environmental protection, thereby bringing into consideration the importance of Polluters Pay principle in the context of environmental law and policy. Cases like POSCO’s judgment passed in favour of local communities, and implementation of Western Ghat expert panel report in the Goa foundation case, are successful cases in point.

NGT has also quashed several other environmental clearances that were given a green light by the Ministry of Environment to go on with the construction or mining activities. According to the Centre for Environment Law (CEL) WWF India statistics, amongst all cases filed in the NGT, around 41% are on the on grounds where the Tribunal found faults with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. Highlighted cases in point includes NGT’s quashing EIA clearance given to Aranmula Airport Project in Kerala; Adnani’s coal-based power plant in Chhattisgarh’s Korba district; mining activities in Sacorda, Goa; and the Jindal Gare project in Chhattisgarh

Recent NGT judgements 

Like these judgements, NGT has provided transparent verdicts on many other cases,falling under the purview of environmental protection, and some latest landmark judgments and orders passed by this tribunal have been deliberated below:

  • Some of the recent steps by the tribunal include order of banning diesel vehicles older than 10 years in the national capital along with ban on burning of solid waste in New Delhi. In Vardhaman Kaushik v. Union of India, the Court took cognizance of the growing pollution levels in Delhi. It directed a Committee to prepare an action plan and in the interim, directed that vehicles more than 15 years old not be allowed to ply or be parked on the roads; that burning plastics and other like materials be prohibited; that sufficient space for two way conveyance be left on all market-roads in Delhi; that cycle tracks be constructed; that overloaded trucks and defunct buses not be allowed to ply; and that air purifiers and automatic censors be installed in appropriate locations.
  • In November 2015, NGT directed that all illegal and unauthorized bridges constructed over the river Yamuna, constructed by either miners and or by persons carrying on illegal and unauthorized mining shall be demolished by the State Governments of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh within three days from the date of the verdict notification and report are required to be submitted before the Tribunal.
  • The western region bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered a stay on any construction work within 10 km of Tamhini wildlife sanctuary and eco-sensitive zone until the pendency of an application that has challenged such activity.
  • In Manoj Misra & Madhu Bhaduri v. UoI & others regarding the Yamuna river in Delhi, NGT ordered the concerned authorities of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, NCT of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to ensure proper environmental flows throughout the year, in the entire river and particularly the stretch flowing through Delhi. With regards to dumping of muck alongside the river banks, NGT directed that ‘no person, authority, corporation and/or by whatever name or designation it is called, shall dump any kind of construction debris, municipal, or any other waste on the floodplain/river bed of River Yamuna and its associated water bodies.’ Defaulters are liable with a penalty of Rs 50,000.
  • One of the latest judgments by NGT for the first time brought important principles of town planning within the scope and jurisdiction of the NGT. In Sunil Kumar Chugh v. Secretary MoEF, NGT held that open spaces, recreational grounds and adequate parking facilities in buildings had an important bearing on the right to life of people. In its judgment, the bench held that the developer had violated the EIA Notification, 2006 and the Environment Protection Act, 1986 by commencing construction without prior environmental clearance.
  • Another important case is M.P. Patil v. Union of India wherein the Tribunal examined the details of the basis on which the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd (NTPC) obtained environmental clearance. It was found that NTPC was guilty of misrepresenting facts to obtain environmental clearance. Additionally in this case the tribunal stressed on the importance of Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy that adequately took into consideration the needs of those affected by the project

Strengthening NGT 

NGT has proved to be an effective instrument of law in achieving environmental democracy in India but it is suffering from some lacunas. Some of its recent verdicts have been criticized and questions have been raised about the soundness of its judgement. Recent case in point is the Rohtang Pass and Solang Valley verdict where NGT restricted movement of vehicles in the pass and restricted adventure activities in the valley without taking into consideration alternate livelihood options of the local dependents.

NGT has also been criticized for it’s selective and judicial nature in judgement as with Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Noida. As per the judgement, the principal bench of NGT ordered Nodia to stop all construction within a 10-kilometre (km) radius of the sanctuary. The order stopped constructions only in Uttar Pradesh, but inexplicably didn’t do so in parts of Delhi which fall within the 10 km radius. Critics have also questioned the “lack of environmental finesse” of its expert members and inadequate number of permanent benches in India. 

On the whole, I personally feel, NGT has proven to be an effective instrument of law. It needs to be strengthened more with adequate support from the relevant departments, establishment of more permanent benches across the country and should also be empowered with suo moto powers.

(This article has been contributed by Akshat Mishra who is the Founding Editor of Pathways to Development- Journalism about the environment, sustainability, and policy from researchers on the ground. Akshat is also working as a Senior Research Associate with CUTS International)