"The National Green Tribunal will give the Indian citizen first time judicial remedy as far as environmental damages are concerned" -
Mr. Jairam Ramesh in March 2010

This primer is primarily meant for explaining the salient features of National Green Tribunal (NGT) to those involved in and connected with chemical industry and trade.

In June 2010, Government of India notified introduction of National Green tribunal Act 2010 leading to establishment of a National Green Tribunal (NGT) for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection, conservation of forests and other natural resources. The National Green Tribunal (hereinafter referred to as tribunal or green tribunal) began operative from 18th Oct 2010. The tribunal repeals and replaces the earlier National Environment Tribunal Act 1995 and the National Environment Appellate Authority 1997 and all cases pending before them stand transferred to this tribunal. The origin of the green Tribunal can be traced to 186th Report of the Law Commission of India (2003) dedicated to "Proposal to constitute Environmental Courts".

The term "tribunal" denotes a body that has quasi-judicial function with the authority to pronounce judgment on matters based on evidence. The green tribunal comprises a chairperson, judicial officers and environmental expert members who will hear the cases regarding infringement of environmental protection and rights around the country and have the powers to decide and disperse compensations.

Initially, the green tribunal is proposed to be set up in five places- Delhi, Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai.

Jurisdiction and powers of National Green Tribunal (NGT):

The green tribunal shall hear the disputes arising from enforcement of any legal right relating to environment and shall also include violation of a specific statutory environmental obligation by an individual, firm, company, local authority etc. Instances where an individual or the community at large is affected or likely to be affected or the gravity of damage to environment is substantial or damage to public health is broadly measurable could trigger complaints under the green tribunal.

The green tribunal will function as appellate authority to persons aggrieved by any order or decision made under the following Acts:

  1. Water (Prevention and control of Pollution) Act 1974
  2. Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act 1977
  3. Forest (Conservation) Act 1980
  4. Air (Prevention and Control Pollution) Act 1981,
  5. Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and
  6. Biological Diversity Act 2002.

The NGT has powers to regulate its own procedure and is not bound by the procedurelaid down by the Code of Civil Procedure 1908 or by the rules of evidence contained inthe Indian Evidence Act 1872. All proceedings before the NGT shall be deemed to bejudicial proceedings and the tribunal, while passing any order or award shall apply theprinciple of sustainable development, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.

The complaint filed before the tribunal must be disposed within six months.

It is important to know the following.

  • The NGT Act 2010 applies to civil cases and it excludes criminal offences.
  • There is no limit for the compensation that the green tribunal can award to the victims of environmental degradation /damage.
  • Compensation or relief ordered to be paid by the tribunal shall be credited to the Environmental Relief Fund 2008 established under Public Liability Insurance Act 1991.
  • Whoever fails to comply with the order or award of the tribunal shall be punishable with imprisonment, which may extend to 3 years or with a fine, which may extend to Rs 10 crores. In case of companies, the penalty may extend to Rs 25 crores.
  • A person aggrieved by any decision or award of the tribunal can appeal to the Supreme Court.

The NGT Act 2010 gives a broad and all-encompassing definition to certain important terms that could trigger complaint before the tribunal. Few examples from the Act include:

Hazardous substance means any substance or preparations which is defined as hazardous substance in the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and exceeding such quantity as specified or may be specified by the Central Government under the Public Liability Insurance Act 1991

The Environment (Protection )Act 1986 defines hazardous substance as any substance or preparation which, by reason of its chemical or physico-chemical properties or handling, is liable to cause harm to human beings, other living creatures, plant, micro-organism, property or the environment;

Accident means an accident involving a fortuitous or sudden or unintended occurrence while handling any hazardous substance or equipment or plant or vehicle resulting in continuous or intermittent or repeated exposure to death of or injury to any person or damage to any property or environment"

Injury includes permanent, partial or total disablement or sickness resulting out of an accident. Heads under which compensation or relief for damage that may be claimed by citizens under National Green Tribunal Act 2010 remain comprehensive as given below:

  1. Death;
  2. Permanent , temporary, total or partial disability or other injury or sickness;
  3. Loss of wages due to total or partial disability or permanent or temporary disability;
  4. Medical expenses incurred for treatment of injuries or sickness;
  5. Damages to private property;
  6. Expenses incurred by the Government or any local authority in providing relief, aid and rehabilitation to the affected persons;
  7. Expenses incurred by the Government for any administrative or legal action or to cope with any harm or damage, including compensation for environmental degradation and restoration of the quality of environment;
  8. Loss to the Government or local authority arising out of or connected with the activity causing any damage;
  9. Claims on account of any harm, damage or destruction to fauna including milch and draught animals and aquatic fauns;
  10. Claims on account of any harm, damage or destruction to flora including aquatic flora, crops, vegetables, trees and orchards;
  11. Claims including cost of restoration on account of any harm or damage to environment including pollution of soil, air, water, land and eco-systems;
  12. Loss and destruction of any property other than private property;
  13. Loss of business or employment or both;
  14. Any other claim arising out of, or connected with, any activity of handling of hazardous substance.

A statute evolves over years through interpretations and implementation and, in the process, reveals its strengths and shortcomings. The National Green Tribunal Act - 2010 is nascent now. To know its strengths and shortcomings, we need to wait and watch how it evolves through interpretation and implementation.

Why is the Act termed as National Green Tribunal Act and why not simply as National Environment Tribunal Act? What is the significance or special meaning of the term "green" as given in the title of the Act? No clear answer is available as of now! Merriam Webster's dictionary defines the term "green" as tending to preserve environmental quality. Well, that suggests and reveals the ultimate aim of the NGT Act.

[The author is associated with Indian Chemical Council (ICC) in his capacity as Chairman for ICC's International Treaties Expert Committee. His E-mail: ganesanicc@gmail.com ]