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The Supreme Court on Thursday declared that the National Green Tribunal is vested with Suo motu powers to take cognizance on the basis of letters, representations and media reports. A bench comprising Justices AM Khanwilkar, Hrishikesh Roy and CT Ravikumar delivered the judgment on a batch of petitions which raised the issue whether NGT has Suo motu jurisdiction (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai v. Ankita Sinha and other and connected cases). Justice Hrishikesh Roy who authored the judgment, read out the operative portion of the judgment today morning. The Court held that the NGT must be seen as a sui generis institution as the National Green Tribunals Act, 2010 (NGT Act) provides the Tribunal with wide ranging powers beyond that of a mere adjudicatory body.
Opining on the intention behind the legislature in establishing such a tribunal, the Court held: "NGT Act, when read as a whole, gives much leeway to the NGT to go beyond a mere adjudicatory role. The Parliament's intention is clearly discernible to create a multifunctional body, with the capacity to provide redressal for environmental exigencies. Accordingly, the principles of environmental justice and environmental equity must be explicitly acknowledged as pivotal threads of the NGT's fabric. The NGT must be seen as a sui generis institution and not unus multorum, and its special and exclusive role to foster public interest in the area of environmental domain delineated in the enactment of 2010 must necessarily receive legal recognition of this Court." The Court also acknowledged that environmental impact on climate change is gaining increasing visibility in recent times and thus the NGT must be given the discretion to exercise Suo moto powers in order to salvage adverse environmental consequences for generations to come.
"The nature of ecological imbalance which is visible even in our own times may cascade, and the unforeseen injustice of the future may not be capable of being handled within the frontiers set forth today. The long term and very often irreparable environmental damage which are expected to be arrested by the NGT, urge this Court to advert to what is termed as the 'Seventh Generation' sustainability principle, or the 'Great Law of the Iroquois' (as it originates from the Iroquois Tribe) which requires all decision making to withstand for the benefit of seven generations down the line," the Court further opined.
With the imposition of such a significant responsibility, it was noted that the NGT cannot be allowed to 'remain a mute spectator when no-one knocks on its door'. "Such a society centric approach must be allowed to work within the established safety valves of the principles of natural justice and appeal to the Supreme Court. The hands-off mode for the NGT, when faced with exigencies requiring immediate and effective response, would debilitate the forum from discharging its responsibility and this must be ruled out in the interest of justice," the Court further noted.
The Court further added: "It would be procedural hairsplitting to argue (as it has been) that the NGT could act upon a letter being written to it, but learning about an environmental exigency through any other means cannot trigger the NGT into action. To endorse such an approach would surely be rendering the forum procedurally shackled or incapacitated." The Court however cautioned that the NGT cannot divest from the principles of natural justice and fair play while exercising such a Suo moto jurisdiction. It was directed that the party likely to be affected must be afforded with due opportunity to present its side before the issuance of any adverse orders.
"When the Registry of the NGT does indeed receive a communication or letter, including matters published in media, it may cause to initiate Suo motu action by inviting attention of NGT to such matters in the form of office report. Such circumstances would however require a notice to be given to the sender of the communication or author of the news item, as the case may be, to assist the NGT in the course of hearing and to substantiate the factual matters,” the Court further elucidated.
The Court further opined that since stringent procedural safeguards are enumerated in the NGT Act, the danger of Suo moto jurisdiction i.e., the possibility of NGT acting outside its domain is vastly reduced. "When it is legitimately working within the contours of its statutory mandate and with procedurals safeguards clarified above in play, the nature of the trigger itself viz. a letter or a 'Suo motu' initiation, cannot be the basis to curtail the role and responsibility of the specialized forum,” the Court added further. Accordingly, the Court declared that the NGT is vested with Suo motu power in discharge of its functions under the NGT Act.
The cases that were being adjudicated upon are:
1. An appeal filed by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai against an order of the NGT on waste disposal passed on the basis of an article published in The Quint.
2. Batch of appeals arising from an order passed by the NGT on the basis of a letter representation reducing the minimum distance rule for quarries in Kerala as 50 meters from 200 meters from residential units. The Kerala High Court had held that NGT has Suo motu jurisdiction; however, it limited the operation of the order to new quarries and allowed existing quarries to operate as per earlier distance limit till the term of their license. The bench had reserved verdict on September 8, after hearing a battery of senior lawyers over 4 days. Senior Advocate Anand Grover, who was appointed as an amicus curia in the case, had opined that NGT cannot exercise Suo motu powers on the basis of letters, representations or media reports.
The Union Government, represented by Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, had submitted that the powers of NGT cannot be curtailed by procedural law. The ASG added that the NGT can take note of communications addressed to it. Senior Advocates Mukul Rohatgi, Dushyant Dave, Atmaram Nadkarni, V Giri, Krishnan Venugopal, Siddharth Dave, Sajan Poovayya, Dhruv Mehta, Jaideep Gupta etc., argued that only constitutional courts can exercise Suo motu powers and a statutory tribunal like NGT has to act within the confines of the parent law. On the other hand, Senior Advocates Nidhesh Gupta, Sanjay Parikh, and Gopal Shankaranarayanan argued that NGT has been conferred powers to pass orders for the restitution of environment and hence can exercise Suo motu powers.- TTN