National Green Tribunal is a fast track mechanism, but is a costly affair which few affected by environment can afford to approach

environmental326x212Gujarat Social Watch (GSW), an initiative of Paryavaran Mitra, has come up with a new study, “Assessment of working of National Green Tribunal (NGT): With special reference to cases from Gujarat and western region bench of Pune.” It carries opinions — in a question and answer (Q&A) format — of few of the stakeholders (grassroots activists, environmental experts, lawyers) who were directly associated in preparing the report. Reproduced below are a few excerpts:

Shailendrasinh JadejaSailendra Sinh Jadeja, a Rajkot citizen, with the active support of the Paryavaran Mitra, filed a case against Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC), and the contractors for Rajkot municipal solid waste, Hanzar Biotech (Application No. 131/2013). Waste disposal was leading to water and air pollution. NGT delivered its judgment in six months, ruling that Rs 1 lakh be paid as compensation to the applicants as the cost involved in filing the case, and Rs 25 lakh to the affected farmers.

Q: Are you satisfied by the judgment?

A: Yet. It was very fast, it took just six months. But, till now nothing has been done to stop irregular dumping of municipal waste. The waste is being dumped without being processed. Nor has any compensation been paid.

Q: Show cause notices were issued to RMC and Hanzar Biotech by GPCB, but there was no response. Why did GPCB not decide to take strict action?

A: Due to dispersion of waste there was contamination of groundwater and degradation of quality of farmland, ultimately affecting health and economic status of the affected people. GPCB should have been stricter. Ultimately it is the people who are affected the most. There seemed to be some sort of deal between GPCB and RMC. GPCB was hesitant in take action against RMC because of political interference.

Q: The main contention of RMC, to which NGT seemed to lend ear, was that the closure of the plant would be dangerous to environment, and would result in spreading epidemic diseases.

A: The RMC had just one argument. They invoked this contention. NGT should have understood the issue. It should have seen that the plant was causing harm to public health and environment.

Q: What is the current status of the NGT judgment?

A: Currently, the plant has stopped functioning, and the process of waste management has been suspended. The dumping of waste is taking place in the open grounds. No action has been taken against the culprits since December 2013. GPCB is sleeping over its duties. It has refused to act. NGT had strictly directed GPCB to ensure that pollution parameters are not tampered with. As the plant has been closed down, it is leading to more pollution. There have been instances of fire breaking out. Locals feel threatened due to this. Hanzar Biotech has disappeared. It is no more engaged with RMC. It seems, Hanzar Biotech and RMC mutually agreed to ignore the contractual liability, although the contract was for 30 years. RMC has, in the meanwhile, invited fresh tenders for waste management. Monsoon is approaching. Rain waters may get mixed with polluted water and flow towards rivers and lakes.

Q: Will you appeal in the Supreme Court? What will be your contention?

A: Our main contention will be that there should be an investigating agency or some higher authority to conduct probe RMC officials, because the latter did not work within the parameters of set for pollution control. There should be increase in the amount of compensation. Then, this is a clear case of contempt. The plant has been closed down, while the court direction said the plant should be properly managed. In fact, the main contention of the authorities was that closure of the plant would lead to the problem of large-scale environmental pollution, adversely affecting public health.

***

Chetan VyasChetan Vyas, a paralegal of Paryavaran Mitra, was involved in a case (Appeal No. 47/2012) fought by Gau Raxa Hitraxak Manch and Gauchar Paryavaran Pouchav Trust, Rajula, against the Union of India and others regarding the manner in which environmental clearance (EC) was granted to expand the Pipavav Port in south Saurashtra.

Q: What kind of problems people faced due to the project?

A: Due to deforestation of mangroves, polluted waters from the port side were degrading our lands. Also, the developers built sand walls, which stopped natural flow of sea water. They did not discharge their responsibility of development of villages like Shiyalbet, Kadiyari, Rampara and Bherai. The port expansion threatened the existence of the gochar land, meant for cattle grazing.

Q: How did the project violate conditions laid down for granting EC?

A: There were various violations. Waste was being dumped in open grounds and on farmlands. The proponents adopted five villages, yet failed to provide basic facilities like water, primary education, or overall welfare of the people. Worse, the pollution created by the port caused various environmental and health problems to the people residing in these villages.

Q: What is the situation after the judgment?

A: The proponents continue to violate EC norms, resulting in increased air and water pollution. The road used by villagers to move out of village, which was blocked, has been partially opened, allowing people to move out during specific hours fixed by the developers. Cargos or containers which are loaded and unloaded are kept in the open grounds. No special area for it has yet been allotted for this. This results in water pollution, killing cows and buffaloes. The project proponents changed the flow of water due to which farm lands have become saline, resulting in infertile lands in Rampara village. During construction activities for expansion, the developers buried mangroves, and claimed that there were no mangroves!  Fishermen depend directly on biological diversity of sea for their livelihood. But they have been adversely affected because of destruction of mangroves. Now, fishermen have to go deeper into the sea to get a catch. This is particularly true of fishermen of Shiyalbet village

Q: What is your next step?

A: We have filed a new case in NGT. We have challenged the project proponents for contempt of court. The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) had to rethink about clearance given to port expansion. But this has not happened.

***

Bhushan OzaBhushan Oza, lawyer, Gujarat High Court:

Q: Do you think judgments given by NGT are favourable for environmental protection?

A: NGT does give judgments favourable to ecology. This is mainly because its benches are composed of experts both from judicial and scientific fields. Yet, one needs to look at how things happen on the ground. Implementation is not properly done. NGT is a new institution. It will take time for it to improve. As for Gujarat, one major problem in the state is that standards set by GPCB are quite loose, and do not in any way tally with stricter environmental norms prevailing in western countries. In fact, GPCB standards allow investors to reach higher pollution levels.

Q Can NGT deliver biased judgments?

A: There are some allegations that judgments are biased because, even though experts are competent, they are still part of the same system.

Q: Does NGT serve its purpose to give efficient and speedy judgments?

A: NGT is indeed very fast, and this is because it has experts on its panel. In high court, when a case is filed, judges need to gather information from experts, which can take time, whereas NGT already has experts capable of scientifically analyzing things. In fact, NGT is a big relief to high courts, which were burdened with large number of green cases.

Q: Do you think having a western zone bench in Pune is an issue?

A: It is a real problem for most people. Those wanting to file a case cannot go to Pune. Already, there is a real demand for a bench in Ahmedabad. It is especially true since Gujarat has come to be known an industrially developed state.

***

Mahesh pandya Mahesh Pandya, director, Paryavaran Mitra:

Q: What are the positive and negative points of NGT?

A: High court and Supreme Court judges are not technically sound on environmental issues. NGT is capable of solving environmental issues with proper knowledge, as it has technical and legal experts. In fact, NGT is a fast track mechanism, where judgments are delivered within 6-7 months. NGT has been instrumental in ordering compensation to the affected people which is never the case with high courts. It ruled that Rajkot farmers be given Rs 25 lakh for the pollution created by dumping municipal solid waste. Whatever the decisions of NGT, these can be challenged in the Supreme Court. On the negative side, going to NGT is quite expensive. Only people who are capable of paying higher fees to lawyers can afford to go to NGT.

Q: Is there a need for NGT in Gujarat?

A: There should be a full-fledged bench in Ahmedabad as pollution levels are fast increasing in Gujarat and there are many chemical industries here. One of the reasons why we require a bench in Gujarat is that some people, who may find it costly to go to Pune, do not file environment-related cases at all. Even GPCB is not active.

***

Shailija Pillai, lawyer, Gujarat High Court:

Q: What was the need for NGT?

A: We have many environment-related cases. Most of them are ignored by general courts. They are not treated as important. Also, in general courts, there are no expert lawyers or judges who know about environmental issues and laws. Hence, NGT came into existence by an Act of Parliament. Main features of NGT are that it is cost effective, discusses issues within a short time frame with experts who are well aware or are knowledgeable about environmental issues.

Q: Is it an issue with petitioners that to challenge a decision of NGT, one has to go to the Supreme Court?

A: NGT orders can be challenged only in the Supreme Court and not in high court. Many people cannot afford to go to the Supreme Court due to high costs.

***

Parul Gupta, environmental lawyer:

Q: Do you think NGT is qualified and efficient to protect environment?

A: Yes. Prior to NGT there were no experts capable of giving expertise on environmental matters. NGT proved to be a big relief to high courts. It also helped the country by making a balance between environment and development. NGT benches apply the “sustainable development” principle in order to deliver their judgments.

Q: What difficulties do lawyers face at NGT?

A: NGT judgments are based on scientific expertise, hence lawyers face a tough job. You have to understand issues, seek help from NGOs.

Q: Are NGT judgments implemented?

A: Yes. Polluters have been asked for pay compensation for their fault. The only issue is that cases judged by NGT are challenged in the Supreme Court, more so when a judgment is not in favour of the industry.

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