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National green tribunal wins edge over government

The Loktak Lake

In Manipur, the government takes unilateral decisions to come up with project proposals in biodiversity-sensitive areas, seeking to permanently displace both human and wildlife populations who thrive upon natural landscapes.

By Salam Rajesh

For some years now the functioning of the national environmental justice mechanism, the National Green Tribunal, had been locked in controversies of sorts with the government curbing its outreach and the concerned environmental groups criticizing the body for inaction over several petitions lying with it, for years.

The stalemate took a turn for the good recently when the highest pinnacle of justice in the country – the Supreme Court – passed a landmark judgment saying that the ‘National Green Tribunal (NGT) does have suo moto powers and can take up environmental issues on its own’. The judgment comes as a shot in the arm for legitimate environmental causes at a critical time when the country is being rocked with a dilution of environmental laws and willful policies that seek to encroach upon forest lands and resources.

The Supreme Court’s judgment is crucial as it overrides the Union Government’s move to curtain rights of the national environmental justice mechanism saying that “NGT does not have such powers (of its own to decide matters concerning environmental issues and conflicts of interest between States and concerned stakeholders)”.

Quite recently there was a period of time when the NGT was criticized nationally for inaction over petitions concerning environmental issues, such as those related to environmental clearances for developmental projects like mega dams and mining that affects forest lands, and the lukewarm response to petitioners approaching the national environmental justice system for ‘justice’.

The issue pertained to allegations that NGT was infiltrated by individuals having nexus to the government, thus favouring cases aligned with the government and corporate while sidelining cases coming up from the grassroots activists. It even came to the point of extreme frustration from indigenous peoples and local communities for them to label the national body as a ‘toothless tiger’.

Passing its crucial judgment early in October this year, the apex court observed that, “The National Green Tribunal cannot afford to remain a mute spectator when no one knocks on its door”. The national environmental justice body was created under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 primarily for the protection of the environment, read with safeguarding forests from external pressures and anthropogenic activities that typically lead to massive deforestation and multiple end impacts.

For the environmental activists and activism long thwarted by States’ interferences and unilateral decisions without the process of free, prior and informed consent of the IPLCs (Indigenous peoples and local communities) whose interests and resources are more often impacted negatively by government’s projects and schemes than doing good, the Supreme Court’s intervention comes as a huge relief.

Back in Manipur, too, there has had been numerous instances as similarly happening in most of the States in the country where Government takes unilateral decisions to come up with project proposals in biodiversity sensitive areas, seeking to permanently displace both human and wildlife populations who thrive upon natural landscapes.

The largest freshwater lake in the North-Eastern region – Loktak Lake, a Ramsar site of international importance – has been plagued with controversies all along these four decades and more. A single intervention by the State has practically disturbed the pristine ecology and environment of the lake for all times to come, displacing thousands of human population who depend directly on the lake for their living and sustenance, and numerous wildlife populations including endemic and migratory species of global significance.

Nearly one-third of the State, inclusive of vast tracts of land in western and southwestern Manipur comprising of Tamenglong, Jiribam and Churachandpur (now Pherzwal) districts stood to have been lost permanently had the proposal of the 1500 megawatt capacity Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Multipurpose Project gone through. It was the abject objections by IPLCs that stalled the project, a process that the State ought to be benefitted now that the world body – the United Nations – has stressed the significance of ecosystem restoration and revival of ‘wasted’ natural landscapes to address climate emergencies.

The Hindusthan Times (8th October, 2021) reported that a three-judge bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar, Hrishikesh Roy and CT Ravikumar while delivering the landmark judgment held that, “Holding that any other interpretation would go against public good and render the environmental watchdog ‘toothless’ and ‘ineffective’, it is vital for the well being of the nation and its people, to have a flexible mechanism to address all issues pertaining to environmental damage and resultant climate change so that we can leave behind a better environmental legacy for our children, and the generations thereafter”.

This observation of the apex court reflects upon the urgency to address emerging climate issues that is responsible for erratic climatic conditions across nations, influencing unprecedented cyclonic storms, heat waves, cold waves, drought, incessant rainfall, land sinks and sea level rise. Many low lying countries are now faced with the threat of permanent submergence and frequent inundation due to sea level rise, which is said to be a process of climate change and global warming.

There are two very obvious fronts across nations, the one urging upon so-said ‘development’ process that seeks to intrude into natural landscapes while the other is set to resist the former at all cost. The confrontation level is intense on the ground and at the UN structure, where each side lobbies earnestly to have their voice heard by the world community.

It is, therefore, at a critical juncture of intense debate over gains and losses that the apex court’s judgment comes in favour of those crusading for environment justice. The Union Government is currently in the process of seeking public’s comments on re-drafting the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Environment Impact Assessment. Both proposals are facing stiff opposition from environment campaigners on the ground that these will dilute the protection enjoyed by forests and other natural landscapes over time.

The 77-page judgment of the apex court wrapped up the argument saying that “given the fallout of the climate crisis, where the adverse environmental impact may be egregious, but the community affected is unable to effectively get the machinery into action, a forum created specifically to address such concerns should surely be expected to move with expediency, and of its own accord”.

The National Green Tribunal is now expected to take up the yeomen’s spade with conclusive decisions on pending environmental cases that had since been gathering dust. The apex court’s ruling is the proverbial ‘silver lining amongst the dark clouds’ for environmental activists seeking justice over the protection of the natural environment and the rights of those defending the rights of forests, rivers, wetlands, peatlands, mangroves, coral reefs, and many other landscapes and seascapes.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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