National Green Tribunal is a specialized body which was set up under the National Green Tribunal Act (2010) for effective and expeditious disposal of civil cases relating to environmental protection, conservation of forests and other natural resources. It replaced the existing National Environment Appellate Authority of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. There were many reasons behind the setting up of the National Green Tribunal. The cases of Indian council for Enviro-legal action v. union of India, M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and A.P. Pollution control board v. Professor M.V Nayudu triggered the need for environmental courts. The Law Commission of India (186th Report 2003), based on a review of the technical and scientific problems that came before the courts and the inadequacy of judicial knowledge on the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues, recommended the establishment of environmental courts.

India became the third country in the world to set up a specialized environmental tribunal, after Australia and New Zealand. There are five places of sittings of the NGT; New Delhi is the Principal place of sitting and Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai are the other four seats of the tribunal. The other four are also called the zonal benches. These zonal benches ensure that the tribunal is accessible to more people. Apart from these, there are circuit benches as well, in Shimla, Jodhpur, Shillong etc. The Tribunal has jurisdiction over all civil cases which involve a substantial question relating to environment, which includes enforcement of any legal right relating to environment. It is a quasi-judicial body which possesses original jurisdiction on filling of an application or appeal as well as appellate jurisdiction to hear those appeals as a court. However, unlike normal courts which have the power to adjudicate upon all types of disputes, NGT only has the power of enforcing laws on administrative agencies. The tribunal is guided by the principles of ‘natural justice’ and its orders and awards fall in concurrence with the principles of sustainable development, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.

Over the years NGT has played a significant and critical role in environmental regulation. It has passed strict orders on issues ranging from pollution to deforestation to waste management. In 2012, NGT suspended the MoU which was signed between POSCO (steel company) and the government of Odisha to set up a steel plant. This was seen as a radical move for the protection of the local communities and forests. In the case of Alaknanda Hydro Power Co.Ltd vs Anuj Joshi & Ors, NGT ordered the company to compensate the petitioner by applying the principle of ‘polluter pays’. The three-day World Culture Festival (WCF) organized by Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living Foundation on the Yamuna Plains was declared as violating the environmental norms and causing environmental degradation by the NGT; the panel also imposed a penalty of Rs. 5 crore on them. In another significant decision, the NGT, in 2017 imposed an interim ban on plastic bags of less than 50-micron thickness in Delhi because “they were causing animal deaths, clogging sewers and harming the environment”. The more recent would be the order passed by the NGT in the Vizag Gas leak case; in which the tribunal rejected the petition for the review of the order asking for the payment of Rs. 50 crore as damages. The tribunal also said that LG Polymers had “absolute liability” in the case.

The structure of the Tribunal comprises of the Chairperson (appointed by the central government with the consultation of the chief justice of India), the Judicial Members and Expert Members. This structure helps in giving better results as the decision making process has the inputs of people from the scientific as well as judicial field. Studies conducted on the effectiveness of the tribunal suggest that the presence of the expert members promotes pro-environment results while keeping in mind the uncertainties of science and technologies.

National green tribunal has been playing a proactive role in shaping the environmental jurisprudence in India. Today, the status quo of environmental jurisdiction in India is recognized internationally. By May’2020 the tribunal had already disposed 29760 cases, where it is important to note that it is mandated to make disposal of appeals within 6 months of filing of the same. In recent years the tribunal has made remarks, passed orders and given directives on a vast array of matters that range from noise pollution to bio-medical waste management. The past decade has also witnessed an emerging participation from the civil society in matters of environmental concern. The people at large are becoming more aware about the issue of environment degradation, and are in turn becoming more vocal on various platforms. Like in one instance, the NGT initiated proceedings on the basis of a news article published in ‘The Hindi’ on the increasing pollution of rivers. Another example would be, when there was a social media outrage on the death of a pregnant elephant in Kerela caused by consumption of a pineapple loaded with explosives, the tribunal took suo moto cognizance of the case. Also, relying on wide media coverage of air pollution in Northern India, the tribunal banned firecrackers where air quality is ‘poor’.

However, with such upsurge in cases involving matters that fall under the ambit of the NGT, it can’t be ignored that there is a lack of manpower in the body; considering the pressure of disposal of cases within 6 months. Another major challenge being faced by the tribunal is the increasing number of writ petitions filed in the High Courts, challenging the orders of the NGT. The NGT Act states that the orders of the tribunal can be challenged in the Supreme Court, but there is lack of clarity on what kind of decisions can be challenged in the High Courts. Since NGT is a statutory body and the High Court being a constitutional body, the latter holds more power. The increasing invocation of Article 226 is becoming a concern since it dilutes the point of lessening the burden of courts, which was one of the purposes of setting up the tribunal.

Overall the NGT has been quite effective and not been proven as a toothless tiger. The progress of environmental justice in India has shown a positive trend. The handling of cases by the tribunal, the suo moto actions taken by it and the delivery of justice, reflect the idea that the judiciary is there for everyone. The NGT works to ensure that every citizen can enjoy his right to have a pollution free environment. But for better results the tribunal should be given more autonomy and power.

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