Madras High Court restrains green tribunal from initiating suo motu proceedings

Order given on public interest petition which says tribunal has been overstepping its jurisdiction

By Srestha Banerjee
Published: Wednesday 08 January 2014

A recent court order has put a question mark on the powers of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to take suo motu cognisance of environmental matters and initiating proceedings. The Madras High Court, in an order issued last week, restrained the tribunal from initiating such proceedings. It noted that according to the provisions of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, the tribunal has no jurisdiction to act suo motu.

The order was given on a public interest petition by advocate P Sundararajan, contending that the Southern Zone of NGT has been over- stepping its jurisdiction and should be prohibited from doing so. “The NGT (Southern Zone) has been deliberating suo motu cases like those against Tamil Nadu, the Union of India and other public and private sector undertakings,” says the petitioner.

Similar concerns on tribunal’s area of jurisdiction have been raised by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) as well. Last year, the ministry on several occasions objected the exercise of such powers by the tribunal. An affidavit was also filed by the ministry before the Supreme Court on the matter. “The affidavit was withdrawn,” says an official, calling the reason for the move as “being complex”.

Currently, the central bench of the NGT is dealing suo motu with a number of cases that involve MoEF as well as state governments. For example, in a move against MoEF and Madhya Pradesh state authorities in May last year, the tribunal, on its own took up the matter of mining activities in Mandla district of the state. The main concern was that such activities were being carried out between two important national parks—Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park— and was affecting the wildlife habitat in the area. The tribunal also noted that owners of some of the mining leases have exceeded the production capacity in respect of the consent that was given to them. This, as indicated by the tribunal, shows the “irresponsible attitude” of administrative authorities. In another matter, a proceeding was initiated against the Delhi government on construction of roads in Asola Wildlife Sanctuary in the southern fringe of Delhi.

What the law states

Since its inception in 2010, NGT has been functioning on its mandate as a fast-track court for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation in accordance with the principles of “sustainable development”, the “polluter pays” principle and the “precautionary principle”. Under the provisions of the NGT Act, there is no clear mention of the tribunal's mandate to take up matters on its own. It only says that the tribunal should act on grievances brought before it by others.

According to lawyer Rahul Chowdhury, “the consideration of the power of NGT to act on its own is not black and white”. “Though the Act does not specifically mention the provision of suo motu cognisance, it does say that the tribunal can adopt its own procedure,” says Chowdhury.

Section 19 of the Act notes that “subject to the provisions of the Act, the Tribunal shall have the power to regulate its own procedure. To what extent the Tribunal can exercise its suo motu power, therefore, remains a matter of legal interpretation. “However, given the controversy lately on this matter, any clarification on this regard needs to be settled by the Supreme Court,” adds Chowdhury.

Affidavit filed in the High Court of Madras regarding the Southern Zone of the National Green Tribunal

Proposed amendments to the National Green Tribunal Bill 2009

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