National Green Tribunal Can't Remain "Mute Spectator": Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled that the National Green Tribunal is vested with suo motu power which is vital for the "wellbeing of the nation and its people".

National Green Tribunal Can't Remain 'Mute Spectator': Supreme Court

The National Green Tribunal is one of the "most progressive" tribunals, the court said. (File)

New Delhi:

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is vested with suo motu power, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday and said it is vital for the "wellbeing of the nation and its people" to have a flexible mechanism to address issues related to environmental damage so that a better legacy can be left for the future generations.

The NGT can hardly afford to remain a "mute spectator when no-one knocks on its door" and the "hands-off mode" for the tribunal, when faced with exigencies requiring immediate and effective response, would "debilitate the forum" from discharging its responsibility, the apex court said.

A bench headed by Justice AM Khanwilkar said it must adopt an interpretation which sustains the spirit of public good and not render the environmental watchdog of the country "toothless and ineffective".

"It is accordingly declared that the NGT is vested with suo motu (on its own) power in discharge of its functions under the NGT Act," the bench, also comprising Justices Hrishikesh Roy and CT Ravikumar, said in its 77-page judgement.

The top court delivered the verdict while considering the question whether the NGT has the power to exercise suo motu jurisdiction in discharge of its functions under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010. The question arose while dealing with a batch of petitions.

In the circumstance where adverse environmental impact may be egregious but the community affected is unable to effectively get the machinery into action, a forum created specifically to address such concerns should surely be expected to move with expediency and of its own accord, it said.

While noting that NGT has been recognised as one of the "most progressive" tribunals in the world, the court said the nature of ecological imbalance "which is visible even in our own times may cascade and the unforeseen injustice of the future may not be capable of being handled within the frontiers set forth today".

"The NGT, with the distinct role envisaged for it, can hardly afford to remain a mute spectator when no-one knocks on its door," it said, adding, "The hands-off mode for the NGT, when faced with exigencies requiring immediate and effective response, would debilitate the forum from discharging its responsibility and this must be ruled out in the interest of justice."

The judgement, which started with the dialogues of the two protagonists in 'Waiting for Godot'', said the NGT must act, if the exigencies so demand, without indefinitely waiting for the "metaphorical Godot" to knock on its portal.

"It is vital for the wellbeing of the nation and its people, to have a flexible mechanism to address all issues pertaining to environmental damage and resultant climate change so that we can leave behind a better environmental legacy, for our children, and the generations thereafter," it said.

The bench said the statement of objects and reasons of the NGT Act also refers to right to a healthy environment being a part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

It said an institution concerned with a significant aspect of right to life necessarily should be given the "most liberal construction".

The bench said activities of the NGT are not only geared towards the protection of environment but also to ensure that developments do not cause serious and irreparable damage to the ecology and environment.

It said that access to justice may, however, be curtailed by illiteracy, lack of mobility, poverty or even lack of technical knowledge on the part of citizens and another deterrence is the likelihood of polluters or violators being powerful entities with adequate wherewithal to skirt regulations.

"Thus, it may not always be feasible for individuals to knock on the doors of the tribunal, and NGT in such exigencies must not be made dysfunctional," it said.

The bench said it would be "procedural hair-splitting" to argue that the NGT could act upon a letter being written to it but learning about an environmental exigency, through any other means, cannot trigger the NGT tribunal into action.

"To endorse such an approach would surely be rendering the forum procedurally shackled or incapacitated," it said, adding, "It must also be said that the exercise of suo motu jurisdiction does not mean eschewing with the principles of natural justice and fair play."

The apex court said the party, likely to be affected, should be afforded due opportunity to present their side before suffering adverse orders.

It said environmental equity stands to ensure a balanced distribution of environmental risks as well as protections, including application of sustainable development principles.

"An 'equal footing'' conception may not therefore be feasible to adequately address the asymmetrical relationship between the polluters and those affected by their actions. Instead, a recognition of the historical experience of marginalized classes of persons while accessing and effectively using the legal system, will allow for necessary appreciation of social realities and balancing the arm of justice," it said.

The bench said environmental impacts on climate change are gaining increasing visibility and governmental assessment of India's increased vulnerability to such changes in the near future also exists with many countries declaring climate emergencies and many others being urged to follow suit.

During the arguments on the issue, the Centre had said that suo motu power is not exercisable by NGT since the same has not been conferred on the tribunal under the Act.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)