The proposed National Environment Tribunal bill has sparked off a debate in legal, environmental and industrial circles. The bill, expected to be tabled by the government in the forthcoming winter session of Parliament, proposes a national tribunal devoted to environmental matters and the settlement of compensation for accidents. It has, however, been criticised for covering only "accidents" and that too only in units "handling hazardous substances".
The bill was debated upon in the last week of October at the Worldwide Fund for Nature's Centre for Environment Law in New Delhi. "The bill just covers accidents like the Bhopal tragedy and leaves out intentional damage to life and property," pointed out P M Bakshi, director of the Indian Law Institute. "What about continued pollution caused by factories?" asked Supreme Court advocate J Varghese.
"This is a departure from the old concept of criminal liability to the new concept of civil liability," says Bakshi. However, other jurists say the bill is significant as it lessens the burden of the civil courts. The bill also envisages a role for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) concerned with the environment in the legal process. However, according to Lalita Seth, former chief justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court, "The application for compensation claims should not be confined to 'recognised NGOs in the field of environment' as in the draft, but should be open to all NGOs."
Industry representatives express their concern at the increasing financial liability they will face, and environmentalists decry the bill as just another provision for compensation for industrial accidents. Nevertheless, additional solicitor general K T S Tulsi says, "It is a significant move in the right direction."
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