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Established in 2010, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) was set up with a view to speedily disposing of cases pertaining to environmental issues in India. This World Environment Day, we offer a glimpse into how the Tribunal has been functioning of late.
While the NGT has suffered on account of a lack of personnel – something even the Supreme Court has taken note of – it has passed some important decisions in its bid to ensure that environmental laws are followed.
To this end, it has pulled up corporations and governments alike, imposing heavy costs for their disregard towards the environment.
On World Environment Day 2019, we take a look at some important cases handled by the NGT over the past year or so.
Cheating the Environment
In January this year, the NGT Bench headed by Justice AK Goel threatened to order the arrest of the directors of Volkswagen for failing to comply with its earlier order.
The matter stems from a 2015 emission scandal, where Volkswagen was found to have used ‘deceit devices’ in its vehicles which allowed the emission of the polluting Nitrous Oxide well over the prescribed pollution emission standards.
After petitions were filed before it, the NGT, on November 16, 2018 had directed Volkswagen to deposit an amount of Rs. 100 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) within a month. Having failed to comply with this order, the directors were ordered to pay up or face the prospect of being arrested.
The Supreme Court then noted that the NGT should have waited before passing such an order, as it had granted Volkswagen an extension to deposit the money.
But the matter did not end there. In an order passed in March this year, the NGT ordered Volkswagen to deposit Rs. 500 crore for causing damage to the environment as a consequence of using cheat devices in its Diesel cars.
After Volkswagen appealed against this order, the Supreme Court issued notice and ordered that no coercive action could be taken against the company for the time being. The matter will surface again after the court vacations.
The Not So Great Lakes
Over the past few years, Bangalore lakes have assumed legendary status for all the wrong reasons. The ill-effects of environmental neglect could be seen first-hand as the lakes foamed, caught fire, and spilled over onto the roads.
In December last year, the NGT imposed heavy costs on the State of Karnataka for its negligence in maintaining the Bellandur and Varthur Lakes.
The NGT held that as per the Polluter Pays Principle, the state government is liable to make good the loss caused by its negligence. Therefore, it directed the government to deposit Rs. 500 crore in an escrow account, to be used towards implementation of the action plan to save the lakes.
Another Rs. 50 crore was required to be paid to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for restoration of the environment.
Additionally, the state was directed to provide a performance guarantee of Rs. 100 crore to ensure implementation of its directions.
Polluter Pays (in crores)
In November 2018, the NGT directed the Punjab government to pay Rs. 50 crore for pollution caused to the Sutlej and Beas rivers owing to industrial and municipal pollutants.
The pollution of these rivers was found to have adversely affected eight districts in Rajasthan and the Ludhiana and Jalandhar districts in Punjab. Over 1,300 hazardous waste generating industries as well as 17 categories of industries were found to have contributed to this pollution.
Additional directions were passed to make local authorities jointly responsible to prevent any further damage and to take remedial steps so that the quality of water in the affected areas of the Sutlej and Beas are brought within the prescribed standards within six months.
The matter is currently pending before the NGT.
Shifting the goalposts
In January this year, the NGT stayed a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF) passed in October 2017, concerning the emission of pollutants, particularly from sewage treatment plants.
The notification was issued amending the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, Schedule I, which prescribes standards for emission or discharge of pollutants such as Bio-Chemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and Fecal Coliform (FC). As per the petitioner, with the October 2017 notification, the standards finally notified were drastically diluted.
The notification was thus stayed, with NGT observing that operation of the same would be extremely harmful for the public at large.
Phasing out Coal
In March, the NGT directed the closure of all industrial units that run on Coal Gasifiers in Morbi and Wankaner in Gujarat, in view of the alarming levels of pollution caused by them.
While doing so, the Tribunal also noted that the Gujarat Pollution Control Board could not have given consent for the operation of industries using Coal gasifiers, given that no such method of granting permit is envisioned under the Water and Air Pollution Acts.
Directions were also issued to prosecute violators and recover compensation and damages for the pollution caused by the coal-run industries.