National Green Tribunal fails to start, project clearances continue
Two months ago, residents of Thervoy Kandigai in Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu were set to take forward the fight to save their land.
Despite their opposition, the environment ministry in August this year had given clearance to an industrial park near the village. The residents decided to challenge the validity of the clearance.
But their fight came to a halt because the body authorised to hear their appeal was dissolved, and the new body formed in its place is not functional yet. The Environment Impact Assessment report, on the basis of which the clearance was given to the 456.27- hectare (ha) park of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu, states there is no sensitive land use in the project area.
The residents claim about 1,400 ha within 10 km radius of the project area is under cultivation and four lakes are situated within it. They allege their concerns were not heeded during the public hearing, a mandatory step before a project gets clearance.
Such clearance could be challenged before the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA), the forum to hear appeals against environment clearances given by the central and state governments. But on October 18, the Centre dissolved the authority to make way for National Green Tribunal (NGT), a body that will judge environmental matters. An Act was passed in June this year to establish NGT and dissolve NEAA.
Two months have passed but the tribunal is still not functional. The tribunal was to have at least 10 judicial members and 10 expert members but none of them have been appointed. For now, only the chairperson’s position has been filled by Lokeshwar Singh Panta, a former Supreme Court judge. According to the NGT Act, the chairperson alone cannot exercise the jurisdiction, powers and authority of the tribunal.
The appointment of other members can take up to three months, a source in the environment ministry said. The rules for its functioning are yet to be finalised and no regional branch has been opened. The Kandigai residents are now left with no agency to approach. Their draft appeal is lying with a law firm in Delhi.
The delay in functioning of NGT has created a void in regulating environmental clearances in the country. The Centre gives clearances to 70-90 projects every month. A large number of projects are cleared by state governments as well. While the process of giving clearances is on, the forum to challenge them is not in place. The fate of about 28 cases pending in NEAA is hanging in the balance.
The vacuum has given a free pass to industry to march ahead with projects. While the residents of Thervoy Kandigai are waiting for NGT to start functioning, the construction of the industrial park is on. “We are worried that by the time NGT would start functioning, the construction of the park would have reached levels that it will be difficult to take action,” said Madhumita Dutta of Tamil Nadu Anti SEZ Movement.
The Supreme Court has taken a strong stand on the issue. The court on November 22 during a hearing on NGT is said to have warned the environment ministry that it would stay all the clearances if a regulatory mechanism was not put into place immediately. The government on December 6 assured the court it would soon find a way so that the chairperson alone or with the help of a few ad hoc members can hear the appeals till the minimum quorum of members are appointed in the tribunal.
“This may defeat the whole purpose of setting NGT as a principal body for environment regulations,” said Rahul Chaudhary, a Supreme Court advocate. He noted the ad hoc mechanism of the chairman alone handling the cases will make NGT a one-man show. His fears stem from the past record of the government rendering environment regulatory bodies ineffective.
NEAA was also run by a single member. The office of NEAA chairperson was vacant for past the 10 years and the office of vice-chairperson since 2005. Even after several instructions from Delhi High Court and Supreme Court to fill the posts, the government failed to take any action.