Judgment in plain EnglishSuo Moto Powers of the National Green Tribunal
On October 7th 2021, a three-judge Bench comprising Justices Khanwilkar, Ravikumar and Hrishikesh Roy delivered a verdict in Municipal Corporation of Bombay v Ankita Sinha. The Court was deciding whether the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has suo moto powers.
The unanimous judgment authored by Justice Roy held that the NGT is vested with suo moto powers under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (NGT Act). The NGT’s broad mandate of securing environmental protection included the power to identify and intervene in cases at their own initiative. This power cannot be restricted by procedural requirements of a complainant or a formal petition.
The NGT was Formed to Protect a Key Aspect of the Right to Life
Roy J first explained why the NGT Act should be interpreted purposively. The main aim of the NGT was to protect the environment, a purpose covered by the right to a healthy environment within the constitutionally guaranteed right to life. In order to protect the right to life, the statutory provisions should be amplified to serve this purpose. Hence, the NGT may exercise suo moto powers to better serve its purpose.
Section 14 of the NGT Act
Section 14 states that for the NGT to be able to hear a matter: there must be a civil case; which substantially concerns the environment; and involves the implementation of environmental legislations. If these three prerequisites are satisfied, the NGT may exercise jurisdiction. Roy J noted that the provision ‘conspicuously’ leaves out the requirement of an application being filed before the NGT. Hence, the NGT can act on its own initiative so long as the three basic requirements are satisfied.
NGT’s Role Goes Beyond Dispute Resolution
Roy J surveyed the NGT Act and observed that s 14 and Schedule I required the NGT to take action to implement environmental legislations. A specific ‘dispute’ between two or more parties is not necessary for the NGT to exercise jurisdiction. Hence, the NGT must go beyond its adjudicatory role and prevent and remedy environmental destruction.
Roy J specifically pointed out that even where human action has not caused harm, like when a natural calamity occurs, the NGT must devise a plan to protect the environment.
Further, it may perform an ‘inquisitorial’ function by demanding reports and studies of environmental impact of projects irrespective of whether there is a dispute regarding the project.
Scope of NGT’s Suo Moto Powers
Roy J noted that the wide range of functions and duties of the NGT require wide interpretation of its jurisdiction as well. He referred to the Court’s judgment in Mantri Techzone (P) Ltd. v Forward Foundation (2019) where Nazeer J held that the NGT has special jurisdiction for enforcement of environmental rights. This includes suo moto powers.
The Court noted the distinction between the general suo moto powers used by High Courts and the Supreme Court, and the special powers of the Tribunal. It clarified that while constitutional courts may exercise this power in any issue, the NGT cannot travel outside its environmental domain. So, the Court held that as long as the ‘sphere of action’ is not breached, the NGT’s powers must be read widely.
The NGT Should be Guided by the Principles of Environmental Justice and Equity
Roy J noted that there is a power and economic disparity between polluters and those affected by pollution. Polluters are often wealthy corporations, and marginalised communities are most affected by the environmental harm they cause. In cases where such a disparity exists, the parties cannot be considered to be on ‘equal footing’. The concepts of environmental justice and equity focus on how environmental degradation has severe implications on economically and socially marginalised communities. Roy J stated that the historical experience of marginalised communities must be factored into the NGT’s functioning and decisions.
By expanding locus standi in public interest litigation, the courts attempted to remedy this imbalance of powers in the interest of social justice, which included environmental concerns. The NGT was created to ensure that human rights and environmental concerns would be tied together. Roy J stated that the NGT has the power to devise unique solutions for environmental protection. As an environmental court whose mandate is to effectively address environmental concerns, the NGT’s powers should be read widely. Hence, this would include suo moto powers.