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Most successful court on environmental matters lacks amenities, infrastructure
WHEN THE National Green Tribunal (NGT) reopens on July 2 after a month-long vacation, it will be two days away from completing a year of existence. Disposing of a case almost every third working day, the one-of-its kind court has suspended more than a dozen industrial projects, cleared by the Union environment ministry, on the basis of faulty evaluation (see: ‘Decisions taken’). For the jury members of NGT, however, the past year has been a rough ride.
The tribunal, which was constituted by Parliament, lacks basic amenities and necessary infrastructure.
From day one, NGT has been operating from a temporary office and a makeshift court room in Delhi’s Van Vigyan Bhavan which was earlier used as guest house by the environment ministry. The official accommodation given to NGT members—many of whom are retired high court judges—are the guest rooms of the Van Vigyan Bhavan building. The members live without their families because of lack of enough space and absence of kitchen. Even if the members want to rent a house they cannot, because their salary is too little for a decent accommodation.
The members get only 30 per cent of their basic salary Rs 80,000 as housing rent allowance, which is not on a par with most of the other such tribunals and commissions in the country (see: ‘Underpaid, overworked’).
Members of the Central Information Commission; National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission; and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) have been provided with government residential accommodation, while NDMA members enjoy the rank of Minister of State.
More work, less people
On an average, NGT hears eight cases every day. In the past one year it has disposed of 98 cases and about 200 are pending. Given its increasing popularity, more cases are expected. But since its inception, NGT has been reeling under staff shortage. More than 95 posts, including that of a registrar, are vacant in NGT.
To be functional, the tribunal is supposed to have at least 10 judicial and 10 technical members. However, when the positions for these posts were advertised not many candidates applied due to unattractive remuneration. To avoid delay, the tribunal was allowed to function with three judicial and three technical members. Later, two members left NGT to join other assignments, while a new expert joined. Since then, NGT, along with its four regional benches, is being run by five members. It was only last month that two more judicial members were appointed. An NGT member says, “First, the space to conduct hearings is less.” The staff is also not enough to handle the increasing work. “We have written 50-page judgements in long hand because we do not have enough stenographers. We make sure this does not affect our work, but with increasing cases it will be difficult to maintain the quality of work,” adds the member. “The government should at least consider our age.”
Vimal Bhai of non-profit Matu Jan Sanghatan had filed an application in the Supreme Court last year. It asked the court to direct the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to provide official accommodation to NGT members or provide a consolidated pay package similar to that of other commissions and tribunals.
“Previous attempts to set up environmental courts (the National Environment Tribunal and the National Environment Appellate Authority) failed solely because the terms and conditions for members and chairperson were not at par with similarly placed tribunals,” states the application. By not providing official accommodation or alternative residential arrangements, MoEF is creating a situation wherein it will be difficult to make the green tribunal truly functional, it adds.
Since then, the apex court has asked MoEF several times to expedite the process of providing infrastructure to NGT. The ministry, however, seems to be only buying time. On March 19, it asked for three weeks to take necessary steps to fill vacant posts in NGT and provide necessary accommodation and infrastructure for the principle bench. On April 9, it informed the court that steps were afoot to fill the posts and that the Faridkot House in central Delhi—currently occupied by the National Human Rights Commission—will be allotted for the functioning of NGT as soon as it is vacated.
On May 3, MoEF informed the court that six technical and four judicial members will be appointed by October 31. It said requests had been sent to the Chief Justice of India and the Delhi High Court to make fresh recommendations for appointing chairperson and deputing an officer for the post of registrar of NGT, respectively. This time, the court refused to entertain the ministry and gave a deadline of September 15 to appoint the chairperson and 10 other members. It also asked NGT to initiate the process of filling the other 95 posts.
The court also pulled up the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing. It directed the ministry to submit a list of several bungalows that are occupied by political parties, public representatives and government officers even after expiry of the tenure of lease. “The tribunal is an important statutory tribunal, the functions of which are going to impact the country,” said the court.
Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta thinks MoEF is deliberately denying facilities to NGT. “The tribunal has tremendous power. It is an expert body above experts since it consists of technical members along with judicial members,” he says. When an application is filed before a court to review a decision of any authority, it can only look into merits of the decision-making process and decide accordingly. The tribunal can look into the merits of the decision as well, Dutta explains. “With so many faulty decisions the MoEF takes, the judgements of the tribunal are expected to hit back the ministry. May be this is the reason the ministry has been trying to create hurdles to make NGT dysfunctional,” he adds.