The year 2016 was a tumultuous one in terms of the environment across the world and India was no exception to this rule, having spent the final month of the year tackling a devastating cyclone in the country’s south and unbearable pollution levels in the national capital New Delhi up north. In this context, while going green is increasingly an important prerogative for Indian leaders, it is important to understand the role of India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) and its work in 2016.
Under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010, the NGT was set up with the specific mandate of handling environmental disputes, particularly multi-stakeholder scenarios. In 2016, it passed impactful verdicts on issues including control of pollution, forest clearance, and wildlife conservation.
In terms of pollution control, when the air quality in Delhi began to deteriorate in early November, culminating in what ultimately was termed an environmental emergency, the NGT’s role was critical in the efforts to restore normalcy. The NGT supported the phased deregistration of 15-year-old diesel vehicles in Delhi, placed strict rules on incineration plants, constituted a committee to inspect gas stations, and even pioneered a ban on disposable plastics, in effect from January 2017. It also set an important precedent by banning construction activity in the peak stages of this emergency and stood clearly on the stance that economic setbacks cannot be a reason to ignore wide-ranging environmental problems.
The effort to clean up the polluted river Ganga has also been an important pillar of the current Indian government’s efforts and the NGT engaged in a tussle with the state regarding the way forward on the issue. It found that the officials in charge were ill informed about the situation on the ground and demanded that efforts be halted until they could provide information on both the amount and the ways in which the river was subjected to waste generation.
The NGT also locked horns with the Bangalore Development Authority regarding the construction of a steel flyover project, which lacked environmental clearance. It froze construction until a proper assessment could be conducted, particularly expressing concern for the trees and heritage buildings that were situated in the proposed path of the flyover.
If taking governments and development authorities to task is one aspect of what the NGT accomplished, another important one was taking corporations to task. It charged three firms responsible for oil spills in 2011 off the coast of South Mumbai with hefty fines and, in addition to demanding environmental compensation for this, it took into account coal dumped onto the seabed by Adani Enterprises Ltd., charging fines for damage to the marine ecosystem.
In Uttarakhand, the NGT sought compensation from the Alaknanda Hydro Power Company to persons affected by the floods in 2013 by virtue of the dam they constructed. The argument made in that case was that even in the case of natural calamities, companies that played a role in exacerbating or precipitating the conditions of harm were expected to provide reparations.
The NGT further suspended environmental clearance for the Nyamjang Chu Hydro Project in the Tawang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh in a landmark case of wildlife protection. They found that the assessment had ignored the fact that the area was inhabited by the endangered black-necked crane and took into account the pleas of wildlife activists who were calling for protection of the bird.
Finally, in Himachal Pradesh, the NGT recognized the rights of forest dwelling groups and tribes over forest land and protected the same in the case of land diversion. The Kashang Hydropower Project, which was fast-tracked despite pleas from local community boards, was called into question by the NGT, which directed the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change to place the full proposal before the Gram Sabhas (village councils) to consider claims and impacts before making a decision on going forward.
Several NGT orders and the multiple pending decisions have faced ire from different fronts, which have attempted to dilute or nullify the effects of the judgments. While it might be overstatement to say that the efforts taken by the NGT have overwhelmingly met with success, the body’s 2016 stint definitely indicates that the organization is both proactive and determined about the causes it espouses.