Emission fiasco: NGT slams Volkswagen, makes its presence felt to India Inc

Illustration: Binay Sinha
The National Green Tribunal's (NGT’s) January 17 order in which it gave Volkswagen India a strict 24-hour deadline to either deposit Rs 100 crore as fine or risk the arrest of its country managing director (MD) and seizure of properties in India has come as a wake-up call for Corporate India. 

The threat of fresh penal action against Volkswagen India still looms large even after the company makes the said deposit, the four-member Bench stated. 

On November 16 last year, the green tribunal had said that the use of ‘cheat device’ by Volkswagen in diesel cars in India led to the inference of environmental damage and asked the German auto major to deposit an interim amount of Rs 100 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). But the company did not comply with the order then.

In the recent past, not only Volkswagen but other companies, too, have been pulled up by the NGT. 

Anil Agarwal led-Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper had to face the ire of the NGT before being given a relief. A three-member panel set up by the NGT to probe its plant’s closure in Thoothukudi had found violations of environmental norms such as non-submission of groundwater analysis report, non-removal of copper slag dumped along the Uppar river and disposal of hazardous waste without valid authorisation from the state pollution control body. The company ultimately has been asked to spend Rs 100 crore for the welfare of people around its Thoothukudi unit. 

Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries is also on the list. It was directed by the green tribunal to install vapour recovery systems at its petrol pumps selling more than 300 kilolitres of fuel per month. However, there was no compliance on part of Reliance Industries, which led to the CPCB issuing the company a show-cause notice, asking as to why a fine of Rs 1 crore should not be slapped on it and prosecution not be initiated over non-compliance of the NGT order. 

The message to India Inc is clear: 

“The CPCB order on Reliance Industries shows that even the authorities are on their toes to implement the NGT's orders,” noted Advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava. He was a petitioner in the case in which the NGT had fined the Delhi government Rs 25 crore for failing to curb pollution in the region. 

Not only companies but the NGT has also slammed states from time to time for their failure to control pollution. It had recently fined Meghalaya Rs 100 crore for not curbing illegal coal mining.

“All these orders…show the intent of achieving the objective for which the NGT was established. There is a visible change,” Srivastava said. 

Between 2012 and 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), then led by Justice Swatanter Kumar, went from being just a statutory body in the bylanes of New Delhi to a court that no one wanted to rub the wrong way. The change can be gauged from the fact that between July 2011 and November 2018, the NGT disposed of nearly 10 cases every day, passing orders and judgments, which forced companies to set their house in order with respect to compliance.

Justice Kumar retired in December 2017, following which there was a brief lull of six months. In July 2018, Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel was appointed the chairperson of the NGT. Following his appointment, there has been a revival in the urgency regarding compliance among companies, lawyers who focus on cases at the NGT said.

Experts, however, said that it was too early to rest assured that the NGT was indeed back on track. “It has been only six months since Justice Goel took charge. Let us wait for some more time. It is too early to comment for now,” said an advocate requesting anonymity.

Nawneet Vibhaw, partner at law firm Khaitan & Co, who specialises in environmental dispute resolution, agrees to the extent that it is not the NGT alone that can change things. “Yes, the compliance has clearly improved. This should have always been the case as our laws have always been terrific. Unfortunately, the implementation has been weak and that needs to be tightened,” he said.

For many experts, the powers provided to the green tribunal under the current laws are by far sufficient to deal with erring companies and states. “While more power may not be required for it, what's important is that its existing powers are not taken away or diluted,” Vibhaw said.

Srivastava, on the other hand, sought adequate infrastructure and related support by the government to the NGT. “The government should ensure that the adequate number of judges is appointed to the NGT. There was a lack of quorum following the retirement of Justice Swatanter Kumar. That situation is slowly improving with the appointment of Justice Goel. But it should not occur again,” he said.

A few orders by tribunal that turned heads
  • Volkswagen asked to pay Rs 100 crore or face arrest of country MD 
  • Vedanta asked to spend Rs 100 crore  over the next five years for welfare of Thoothukudi residents 
  • In 2015, all diesel vehicles over 10 years old were banned from plying on Delhi roads 
  • The Delhi government was fined Rs 25 crore for failing to curb pollution 
  • Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living was fined Rs 5 crore for damage to Yamuna floodplains