A DIVISION bench of the High Court of Bombay at Goa on Wednesday struck down the notification issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests relocating the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT’s) jurisdiction for Goa-related cases from Pune to New Delhi. The bench said that it was the duty of the judiciary and government to ensure that the cases relating to protecting the environment be brought to a forum that is closer. The HC order is a setback to the state government plans to shift the jurisdiction of Goa’s matters related to environment from Pune to Delhi. The shift was criticized by the non-government organisations and environmentalists fighting for protection of ecology and environment. The High Court has restored the status quo and directed that no files from the NGT western zone bench at Pune be moved to New Delhi.
The High Court, which had taken up the matter suo motu, demolished the government’s contention that it was more convenient for government officials to travel to New Delhi and that it had a better team of legal experts there to defend the state decisions. The bench questioned the government’s claim of convenience as a rationale for consideration in deciding the territorial jurisdiction of a tribunal or its place of sitting. The court also rejected the government’s claim that Pune had low connectivity and observed that there were several options of travel to Pune, be it by road, rail or air both directly from Goa or Mumbai. The High Court appears to have questioned the government whether the transfer of jurisdiction was an attempt to eliminate the common litigant. The court appeared to have questioned whether the government wanted that only those who could afford air travel to and expensive stay in Delhi deserved to get justice. The court’s strong observations and adverse order have dealt the state government a blow and made it look like they wanted to avoid rather than contest the petitions filed with regard to protection of environment.
Goa is truly an extraordinary state, a place where more than anywhere else, the sky, sea and earth meet and there is abundant greenery. The greatest asset of Goa is its good, balanced and healthy human environment. Of course, there are damages that have taken place, but there is still quite a lot that is not yet irreparably damaged. The main objective behind setting up NGT was “effective and expeditious disposal” of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment and giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. The NGT is a specialized body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues. It has a full-time chairperson, judicial members and expert members.
The Supreme Court holds that the right to healthy environment is an integral part of the Right to Life under article 21 of the Constitution. How can human beings survive without a healthy environment? The NGT is there to provide effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy and to develop national laws regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage. It is true that along with cases filed with the NGT with a genuine concern for damage likely or already caused to the environment protection there could be cases filed with other motives or without much substance. Yet, other courts and tribunals are not free from such motivated and frivolous litigation, so how could the NGT be an exception? The NGT, like any other tribunal, can reject such cases prima facie or after a few hearings. The central and state governments have been otherwise working to make it easier for the common man to approach courts and get justice. The same principle should be applied to NGT. Hearing Goa’s cases in Pune is much more in accordance with that principle than taking them to New Delhi. Litigation cannot be avoided in a free and fair justice system. NGT hearings are faster than in a civil court. The tribunal has been specially constituted to make decisions on protection of environment quicker. To make it quicker for Goa’s litigants from all sections of business and society there could be a bench in Goa – the fifth in the country. The primary concern of the state government should be not to allow any room for damage to environment in any decision it takes. Once that is taken care of, litigation in NGT will be easier for it to win.