Apex court bench set to replace green tribunal

Written by Sandip Das | New Delhi | Updated: Jun 27 2009, 06:03am hrs
Jairam Ramesh
To avoid a confrontation with the judiciary, the government has decided to replace the proposed National Environment Tribunal with a green bench to be formed by Supreme Court judges.

The national green bench will be the highest judicial body to deal with environment related court cases, especially those where industrial plans are often ranged against civil society concerns. All civil disputes relating to mandatory environmental and forest clearances required for new industrial projects will be settled by this bench.

The whole idea behind setting up the green bench is to form a specialised tribunal of judges with the ultimate authority resting with the Supreme Court. Jairam Ramesh (pictured), Union minister for environment and forest, said on Friday.

Setting up the bench means the government has jettisoned the National Environment Tribunal Bill 2007 that would have clipped the authority of the judiciary at several levels to deal with environment issues. The Cabinet note circulated by the ministry of environment & forests notes that the bench would also replace the National Environment Tribunal, which was never notified as well as the National Environment Appellate Authority.

Ramesh said his ministry has moved a Cabinet note to set up this specialised judicial body. He also clarified that the ministry is working out a proposal to reconcile the working of the new green bench with the various committees set up to assist the Supreme Court in various environment-related cases. About 50 disputes relating mostly to mining, hydel and coal-based power projects are lying with the Supreme Court, as they have run into environmental and forest clearance related obstacles.

Applauding judicial activism, which took the lead in environmental protection, the minister said he is looking forward to work closely with the courts to ensure that environmental laws in the country are adhered to. According to Ritwick Dutta, a Delhi-based lawyer specialising in environmental issues, the government did not notify setting up of the environment tribunal nor the appellate authority despite setting up the latter in 1997. No key officials have been appointed to the authority so far.

The position of chairman to NEAA is vacant for last nine years and position of vice-chairman is vacant for the last four years, Dutta told FE.

More transparent

Making environmental and forest clearances of industrial projects transparent, the environment ministry has changed the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986. It is now mandatory for project developers to make public the ministry's clearance letter. The compliance status of project promoters also needs to be put in the public domain. The ministry proposes to put the status of all the 250 pending industrial projects for environmental and forest clearances online, for getting response from the public. The mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment norms makes the maximum time for clearances to 210 days for environment and 150 days for forests.