In what would reduce the powers of quasi-judicial National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Union government has proposed junior-level administrative authority appointed by it become the first point of appeal against decisions and clearances of the environment ministry. At the same time, the Union government has proposed a quantum increase in penalties and jail terms for substantial damage to the environment. The proposals come as draft amendments to the existing Environment Protection Act, 1986 and the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010. The amendments, along the lines proposed by the T S R Subramanian committee report, have been put out for public comments.
At the moment, NGT is the first court of appeal against all clearances given and decisions made by the environment ministry, under the forest conservation and the environment protection law, besides others. These include the crucial environment and forest clearance that many industries, development projects and mining sectors require. It is also empowered to hear and adjudicate on all cases which raise substantial questions of environmental policy. An appeal against decisions of NGT lies only with the Supreme Court and no civil court in the country is permitted to hear cases that come under the NGT’s purview.
The government proposes to change that. It has suggested an adjudicating authority appointed by a selection committee it decides upon will become the place for first appeal against the decisions of the environment ministry. The draft leaves it open for the Union government to later decide who can be appointed to the selection committee. It also leaves open to the Union government to decide how the selection committee shall recommend officials to sit on the adjudicating authority.
A person who is or has been a district judge or an officer serving as director in the Union government or joint secretary in the state government (both classes additionally requiring law degrees) can be hired as the adjudicating authority by the Union government. The term of members on the authority will be for five years. They can be removed by the Union government for proven misbehaviour or incapacity after an inquiry by a high court judge or a government’s officer of higher rank. The Central government shall decide the rules for such inquiries and also hold the power to suspend the adjudicating body member while such inquiries are being conducted.
The NGT judicial members, in contrast, could not be removed without an inquiry by a Supreme Court justice and on conditions that he or she had either abused his office, become insolvent , convicted of an offence, become physically or mentally incapable, or acquired interest that would prejudice her or his functioning.
While creating an administrative authority as the agency to which first appeal against environment ministry decisions will lie, the NDA government has proposed substantial increase in penalties for environmental violations. Anyone indicted for causing ‘substantial damage’ to the environment, the government proposed to fine between Rs 5 and Rs 20 crore and a jail sentence between seven years to life imprisonment as punishment depending on the area impacted and the extent of damage.