ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Importance of Being Independent

Is the National Green Tribunal too much trouble for this government?

Given the pace at which the Narendra Modi government is moving to either capture or defang institutions that come in the way of its larger political, social and economic agenda, it is hardly a surprise that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) is also in the line of fire. Set up under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, its remit is to deal with all cases that relate to protecting the environment, conserving forests and natural resources, enforcing legal rights relating to the environment, and giving compensation and relief to people who have suffered damage to their property due to environmental damage. It was set up specifically so that environmental cases could be dealt with speedily and with the requisite expertise. Only the Supreme Court can reverse its ruling. So, for a government in a hurry to implement its developmental model, a “green” court that can take independent decisions on environmental concerns is an uncomfortable presence.

Within months of the Modi government taking office in May 2014, there was talk in government corridors that steps would be taken to rein in the powers of the NGT. While there has been no direct move to dilute the NGT Act, changes brought about by way of the Finance Act, 2017 do precisely that. This law now has provisions applying to tribunals that will also apply to the NGT. An important change brought about by the Finance Act, 2017 is in the qualifications and service conditions of members of tribunals like the NGT. Thus, while under existing provisions the NGT chairperson has to be a retired or serving Supreme Court judge or the chief justice of a high court—in other words, a person with experience in judicial matters—under the new rules, anyone who is qualified to be a Supreme Court judge can head the tribunal. So, even a lawyer with 10 years’ experience in a high court, who is technically qualified to be a Supreme Court judge, can be selected to head the NGT. Also, while currently, the NGT chooses its members through a committee headed by a Supreme Court judge, in future, the choice would be left to government officials. The long-term fallout of these changes would be felt in the quality of the rulings of the NGT, which would be deprived of the judicial experience of senior judges, and would also compromise its independence; something that is essential given that it often has to judge the actions of governments, both at the centre and in the states.

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