Where environment holds court in India

Tribunal offers recourse on green issues in country where development takes priority

At least a dozen lawyers and bureaucrats stand in front of the judges during a morning hearing of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), an environmental court.

"Can you tell us what you can do, instead of telling us what you can't do to ensure agriculture residue is not burned?" Judge Swatanter Kumar, the chairman of the NGT, asked a senior bureaucrat from the northern state of Punjab.

The hearing on Thursday in front of a bench of four judges was on the issue of the burning of stubble by farmers in Punjab and the neighbouring Haryana state, cited as the main cause of the stifling pollution in capital New Delhi as well as its surrounding areas. Delhi was shrouded in a particularly heavy blanket of smog for nearly two weeks last month when air quality sank to over 12 times the safe limit.

As the bureaucrat droned on about the stubble burning, the judge responded sternly: "Please don't give us a lecture. Tell us what action you have taken." The matter was then set for another date.

Over the course of the week, the court - a judicial body led by judges and environmental experts - has held daily hearings on Delhi's pollution, maintaining pressure on the governments of Punjab, Delhi and Haryana, asking them to draw up fresh plans to improve the situation.

In India, environmental issues have not been a priority, with rapid urbanisation putting immense pressure on the country's natural resources. Unchecked growth and poor implementation of existing legislation have led to rivers being polluted, forest and green spaces shrinking, impacting on the habitats of wild animals, and very bad pollution in many cities.

Against this backdrop, the NGT is seen as a recourse for anyone who cares about the environment. Bureaucrats are routinely hauled up. In July, the NGT even issued arrest warrants for four Railway Ministry officials for missing court appearances over a waste disposal matter. The court proceedings are closely followed by the Indian media, and its orders constantly make headlines.

"The NGT has successfully made environment a mainstream subject in India," said Mr Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer. "It has issued warrants of arrest holding officers guilty of contempt. It has opened up doors for anybody to approach, steering the environment movement in a particular direction. Some 150 to 200 cases are heard every day. People know on environmental issues, if you go to the NGT, some change is possible."

Since its inception in 2010, the NGT has adjudicated on 20,696 cases as of October this year, seen as remarkable in a country where court proceedings can go on for years. There are 3,024 cases pending before the court.

Its major decisions include a 50 million rupee (S$1 million) fine on popular spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living Foundation for organising the World Culture Festival on the banks of the Yamuna and ruining the river's floodplains. The foundation has vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court.

"The number of cases filed is a good barometer for measuring the confidence of people," said senior advocate Raj Panjwani.

Many critics have slammed the court for judicial activism but many environmentalists and lawyers insist it is necessary in India where laws are regularly flouted.

For litigants, it remains the last hope in a country where development mostly outweighs environmental concerns.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2017, with the headline 'Where environment holds court in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe