In 2010, India became the third country after Australia and New Zealand to have a quasi-judicial body, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), for dealing with environmental cases. The agency was mandated to “expeditiously dispose of cases pertaining to environmental protection”. Going by the figures on its website — more than 90 per cent of the cases have been taken care of — the green court seems to have fulfilled its mandate. But the agency has been called out for failing its primary function of securing the “right to healthy environment as a part of the Right to Life under Article 21”. In the past three years, particularly, the agency has been faulted for giving short shrift to due procedure. Now, an investigation by this newspaper has revealed that last year, the NGT invoked the deadline-related technical clause to dismiss 11 petitions, even though at least five of them were filed well within the outer time limit.
The NGT replaced the National Environmental Appellate Authority, which, as a Delhi High Court verdict of 2009 pointed out, lacked “expertise… and independence for redressing public grievances”. To address this deficiency, the NGT Act stipulated that the new organisation have at least 10 officials with a background in the judiciary and the same number with expertise in environmental matters. The tribunal has, however, never functioned with a full house. Currently, it has three judicial and three expert members. With the scale and nature of contentious environmental issues expanding considerably in the past decade — from vehicular pollution and stubble burning to municipal waste and the risks posed by large dams or mining to the challenges presented by e-waste or nuclear waste — the lack of expertise has reflected on the green court’s functioning. NGT decisions have been challenged and overruled in the Supreme Court. In 2019, while setting aside the go-ahead to the Subansiri Hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh, the apex court questioned the tribunal’s expertise. A year earlier, the SC used even stronger words in the Mopa airport case: “The NGT dealt with the submissions which were urged before it in essentially one paragraph… In failing to carry out a merits-based review, the NGT has not discharged an adjudicatory function”.
Of the 11 petitions rejected by the green tribunal last year, one was filed just a day after the deadline and two within 60 days of the outer limit. In one of its earliest orders — Paryavaran Sanrakshan Samiti Lipa v Union of India, 2011 — the NGT had talked about “not being pedantic” in the application of the deadline rule. It invoked the principle of “substantial justice” on “environmental issues”. That, less than 10 years later, the same tribunal takes recourse to words like “lethargic” and “careless” to dismiss petitions — mostly by people from rural areas who reportedly wanted more time to get the paperwork done — is a testimony to how much it has strayed from its original vision.