Ishikaa Sharma recounts her first day at the National Green Tribunal
It was the first week of the newly opened National Green Tribunal (NGT) and I was asked to cover it. Excited, I started from my home early to reach the place before the scheduled time. But the plan failed as the building was difficult to locate. Scrutinised every nook and corner of the road connecting to Munirka flyover in South Delhi before I chanced upon a building named Van Vigyan Bhawan. I breathed a sigh of relief while reading National Green Tribunal on a green round plate fixed on the right side of the gate of the Vigyan Bhawan.
India is the third country in the world to have NGT, a special court to try cases related to environmental degradation and health impact, after Australia and New Zealand. NGT started functioning from July 4. The bill calling for its establishment was passed in 2009.
As soon as I entered NGT's premises, there was a big lounge and a small notice board. The lounge was filled with lawyers seated on comfortable sofas getting up only when there turn was due. Notice board had detailed information of benches, judges, experts, appellants, respondents and timings. But no clarity. Confused, I sought help of the people there but in vain. They instead advised me to just enter and attend the cases as they were being heard.
NGT is a 20-member bodywhich includes 10 judges and 10 environment experts. That day there were only six members (three each). I entered the courtroom, grabbed a chair in the second row and started concentrating on the proceedings.
The room was well lit. Venetian blinds allowed sun rays to penetrate through the spaces in them. The air-conditioned room was small in size. But it worked to my advantage as I could see and hear everything perfectly. Two tall, fair coloured judges sat in front reading papers and a fat file. One among them was the chairperson of NGT, LS Panta. It was the principal bench of NGT.
Not able to understand anything from the proceedings, I turned to people sitting besides me. On my right was a Supreme Court lawyer representing the environment ministry of Gujarat and supporting a thermal power plant in the state. The plant had hit a roadblock as the residents of the area contended there were people staying within one kilometre area of the project. The lawyer maintained there were no people residing within five kilometres where the plant was coming up. He also claimed the upcoming plant was cleaner in comparison to the thermal plants by Tata and Adani already operating in the region. The case was adjourned as the residents had not filed all the papers demanded by NGT.
Towards my left was a lady who had come from Tamil Nadu. She was representing a municipality that wanted to built a solid waste facility in the midst of Pallikarni marshland. In 2007, a major portion of the marshland was declared a reserve forest as it was surrounded by national park. Her case got another hearing as the state environment ministry was not present to give its views. She was unhappy. “People come from far off places to attend the proceedings. Adjourning the case causes trouble,” she said. It is very costly, she added.
After attending the proceedings, I realised one thing, public purpose cases are “really” given special attention. The word “really” holds relevance. The solid waste facility case was given the maximum time. The judges emphasised that the lawyers must check all the facts carefully.
The principal bench was then adjourned and I went on to hear cases in the first bench. It was 2 pm, the time of hearing, but no one apart from me was present in the court room as a spectator. I felt odd but smelled an opportunity. I started interacting with lawyers which are otherwise surrounded by press and people. I initiated conversation with a young, learning lawyer. She seemed approachable and explained me a few basics about laws. Just then two judges entered and we stood up to show respect.
Nobody for first case, the lawyer told the judge. She explained, “My Lord the appellate is behind the bars.” The judges then began hearing the second case. It was about a thermal power plant in Ratnagiri region of Maharashtra. The plant had come up in area where now moratorium exists.
Judge told the lawyer, “We cannot throw them out, they bring electricity, money but also pollution
The case can only be made strong if you prove that the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is not usable at all. We can emphasise them staying within the limits.” And from there on there was a sudden twist in the discussion. The judge and the lawyer started exchanging light talks.
“Judge: Hey do you know about any environment law books?
Lawyer: Yes, My Lord
Judge: Obviously you will in fact you would have written many.”
This was followed by adjourning the case. The bench spoiled the day. Their discussions showed there was a judgement before the actual judgement was passed.
I left the building.
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