SC breather for green tribunals
Calcutta: The Supreme Court has stayed a law that would have given the central government complete control over tribunals in the country, including the National Green Tribunal, a judicial body meant to adjudicate environment-related complaints.
Friday's interim order from a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.M. Khanwilkar came on a host of petitions.
One of the petitioners was Congress leader and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who had challenged the Finance Act the Centre had promulgated last year.
A representative of Ramesh's legal team said the bench "provided interim relief to the petitioner by staying the applicability of the provisions of the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities (Qualification, experience and other conditions of service of members) Rules 2017 to all the tribunals in India, including the National Green Tribunal".
"The court directed that the terms and conditions of service of members of the National Green Tribunal shall be governed by the provisions of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010," the representative wrote to The Telegraph on Saturday.
The stayed rules, part of the Union budget presented in February 2017, gave the Centre powers to appoint and remove the NGT chairperson and other members and also fix their salaries and terms of service.
The Act made it clear that the Centre would frame rules on these matters.
It also said a retired administrator could head the body.
In other words, the new law had made the Union ministry of environment forest and climate change the de facto controlling authority of the NGT.
Under the original act, a retired high court or Supreme Court judge could be appointed the NGT chief.
Ramesh had specifically alleged that the National Green Tribunal Act, a major law the then UPA regime had brought in 2010 to conserve the country's environment, had been diluted through the Finance Act 2017 and its rules.
"This has been a backhanded effort (by the government) to amend a key act and cover up environmental violations. Unless the NGT is turned into a constitutional body, like the Election Commission, its independence cannot be ensured," Ramesh told this newspaper, reiterating what he had said earlier in the Rajya Sabha and the Supreme Court.
Environmentalists hailed the court's order. "It was contended that if the Finance Act 2017 and the rules were followed the whole purpose of having a National Green Tribunal as an independent judicial body for adjudication of disputes will be defeated. The apex court found merit in this argument," environment lawyer Ritwik Datta said.
Activist Subhash Datta said the apex court order was very important. "But the fact remains that most of the green tribunals in the country are now non-functional in the absence of judicial and technical members," he said.
"As environmental issues need to be addressed immediately, the Supreme Court should see that these vacancies are filled up soon."