The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was constituted under the NGT Act, 2010, to provide effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources, in keeping with Article 48A, which requires the State to “protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife.”
The NGT, with its composition of judicial and expert members, was enabled to address the multi-disciplinary issues that the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) was not equipped to handle, at a time when the grant of environmental clearance by the ministry to extractive and manufacturing industry and mega projects was almost routine. Clearance was based upon environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports, which were often poorly done cut-and-paste jobs by industry-appointed entities whose business income depended upon how well those reports enabled the MoEF to grant clearance. Thus, the NGT was a necessary and effective check on this process since it went into vital details that were otherwise neglected or glossed over.
However, because of its very effectiveness, the NGT may have caused embarrassment to successive state and central governments.
Taking a recent example, an NGT-appointed committee visited the Yamuna floodplains in February 2016 to survey the preparations for a World Cultural Festival that was held in March 2016 by the Art of Living Foundation (AoLF). The committee recorded severe damage to the fragile eco-system due to the extensive festival preparations. However, the festival was given the go-ahead with a levy of a Rs. 5 crore interim penalty, to be adjusted towards a final compensation to be assessed after the festival concluded. AoLF’s objections regarding NGT’s assessment of the final compensation and its payment continued for months thereafter, possibly embarrassing the MoEF.
In another case, the NGT criticised the government for wasteful and ineffective expenditure on cleaning the Ganga. Whether or not an effective NGT caused the government acute discomfiture in these episodes will never be known. Diluting NGT powers by amending the NGT Act itself would have been too blatant and politically risky. So, perhaps, the government resorted to ramming the Finance Bill 2017 through Lok Sabha as a Money Bill, to amend around 80 different legislations, including the NGT Act.
The amendments due to Sec 184 of the Finance Act, 2017, concern appointment procedures, qualifications, service terms and conditions, salary and allowances etc, for the chairperson and judicial and expert members of the NGT. This permits greater bureaucratic (government) control over appointments, and undermines the independence, capability and effectiveness of NGT to carry out its function of environmental protection and conservation of natural resources.
This dilution of the powers of the NGT was challenged by former minister for environment Jairam Ramesh in the Supreme Court, which has issued notice to the Union government. He argues that this dilution “is a serious encroachment into the composition and functioning of the NGT and cannot be constitutionally countenanced in light of several decisions of the SC”. It also dilutes the role of the committee that nominates the expert members of the panel. It appears that the Union government took the “money-bill route” to avoid discussion in Parliament.
Climate change issues are serious enough for government to add “Climate Change” to the name of the MoEF, though it may now appear that this was done merely for display to the international community. In such times, diluting the NGT’s effectiveness not only strikes at the spirit of Art. 48A but also indicates the environmentally destructive influence of business and other extra-constitutional interests on governments in their blind pursuit of economic growth and profit-at-any-cost. It also seriously dilutes the government’s international commitments on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with regard to climate change.
India‘s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) states: “Emphasizing the overriding priority of maintaining high economic growth rates to raise living standards, the plan identifies measures that promote our development objectives while also yielding co-benefits for addressing climate change effectively.”
In times when economic-growth-as-development is the major cause for global warming and climate change, NGT’s role in environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources is vital. It can serve to relieve the MoEF&CC of some of the functions relating to mitigating the effects of climate change and promoting measures for adaptation to the changed environment of future.
Disempowering such a regulator not only makes India’s NAPCC aims ring hollow but indicates the ecological illiteracy and also a level of intel-lectual dishonesty among our country’s decision-makers. One can’t help but suspect the government of deliberately weakening the NGT through Sec 184 of the Finance Act, 2017, to ease environmental clearance for environmentally destructive projects.
Protecting the environment is not merely about soil, water and air pollution but also about people and eco-systems to check the pace of climate change. The amendments to the NGT Act must and will be opposed by those who believe that the Earth and its resources are a trust to be nurtured for future generations of all living beings on the planet.
(The writer, a retired Major General, is with People’s Union for Civil Liberties)