2016 saw the National Green Tribunal drive India’s green agenda by delivering landmark judgments that would profoundly change environmental regulation. Here are a few of its verdicts that set precedents for radical change in the way we look at our ecological management. These verdicts have given hope to activists fighting lone battles against government or private companies and would encourage many to bring to light critical issues.
Old diesel vehicles
About 15 years ago, when the courts were pressuring the government to switch buses to CNG from diesel, there was no dearth of nay-sayers who found it impractical and impossible to implement. In 2016, when NGT pushed for removal of old, polluting diesel vehicles from roads in the National Capital Region and a few cities, the resistance from the status-quoists was not as stiff. This can prove to be the biggest step in rescuing Delhi from choking pollution that has forced people to wear masks. It will also give us an appetite for sudden reformist steps which are broadly feared as apocalyptic for their impact on economy. NGT’s order limiting vehicles and commercial enterprises in the eco-sensitive Rohtang Pass, which faced furious opposition from several quarters last year, resulted in a cleaner glacier in 2016. Hopefully, Delhi air will also get cleaner soon.
The art of green living
The World Culture Festival of Art of Living on the banks of the Yamuna launched a big controversy that flew in several directions: critics said it had devastated the floodplains while the organisers claimed there was no floodplains in the first place; the process to fix the quantum of fine or compensation was roundly debated; and many even doubted NGT’s powers to issue contempt notice and award compensation. Art of Living paid Rs 5 crore as compensation but the NGT order did more good than that. The months-long controversy brought in focus issues that rarely get the play they deserve in the mainstream discourse-assessment of environmental impact of seemingly innocuous events, mechanisms for fixing fines and compensation, and the ambit and powers of NGT.
World’s largest mangrove forests, the Sundarbans of late started turning into a tourism hub with steamers and cruises bringing waste, noise, music, lights, people, and, of course, unauthorised structures. NGT banned noise and solid waste pollution in the area to preserve its ecological balance.
In a radically disrupting act, NGT banned all construction in Delhi when it was choking in high pollution in early November. Delhi Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung lifted the ban a week later due to daily-wage labourers losing income. NGT objected and said builders could pay the labourers even if they did not work due to the ban. The order set a precedent-economic fallout cannot stop urgent and radical steps to check pollution. In fact it said whenever PM 10 levels of pollution were found to be in excess of 431 mcg/m3, construction activity should be stopped immediately.
Paying up for acts of God
NGT set another precedent in the country: it fined Alaknanda Hydro Power Company to pay a compensation of Rs 9.26 crore to the persons affected by cloudburst and floods in 2013 in Uttarakhand because the dam constructed by the company contributed to the flooding. It rejected the company’s contention that floods in Uttarakhand was an “act of God”. Now companies can be made to pay compensation even for natural calamities if they have a role in precipitating them.