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National Green Tribunal on Appeal of Forest Clearances

December 6th, 2012 1 comment

In recent news reports there have been deliberations on whether there is a possibility of appealing a central government decision on forest clearances.  In this context, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed states to comply with the statutory requirement of passing an order notifying diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes.  It has also held that it can hear appeals from the orders of state governments and other authorities on forest clearances.

The NGT was established in 2010 to deal with cases relating to environmental protection, and conservation of forests and other natural resources.  The need was felt to have a mechanism to hear appeals filed by aggrieved citizens against government orders on forest clearances.  For instance, the NGT can hear appeals against an order of the appellate authority, state government or pollution control board under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.

How is a forest clearance obtained?

Obtaining a forest clearance is a key step in the process of setting up a project.  Recently the Chhatrasal coal mine allotted to Reliance Power’s 4,000 MW Sasan thermal power project in Madhya Pradesh has received forest clearance.  The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) first gives ‘in-principle’ approval to divert forest land for non-forest purposes based on the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee.  This approval is subject to the project developer complying with certain conditions.  Once these conditions are complied with, the central government issues the final clearance.  It is only after this clearance that the state government passes an order notifying the diversion of forest land.  The NGT’s decision deals with this point in the process during which an appeal can be filed against the order of forest clearance.  For the flowchart put out by the MoEF on the procedure for obtaining a forest clearance, see here.

What was the NGT’s ruling on forest clearances?

The NGT was hearing an appeal against a forest clearance given by the MoEF to divert 61 hectares of forest land for a hydroelectric project by GMR in Uttarakhand.  The NGT has ruled  that it does not have the jurisdiction to hear appeals against forest clearances given to projects by the MoEF.  However, the NGT has the power to hear appeals on an order or decision made by a state government or other authorities under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.  The judgment observed that though Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 requires that state governments pass separate orders notifying the diversion of land, this requirement is not being followed.  The NGT has directed that state governments pass a reasoned order notifying the diversion of the forest land for non-forest purposes, immediately after the central government has given its clearance.  This will allow aggrieved citizens to challenge the forest clearance of a project after the state government has passed an order.  Additionally, the NGT has also directed the MoEF to issue a notification streamlining the procedure to be adopted by state governments and other authorities for passing orders granting forest clearance under section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

There are some concerns that an appeal to the NGT can only be made after the state government has passed an order notifying the diversion of forest land and significant resources have been invested in the project.

What is the status of applications for forest clearances made to the MoEF?

The MoEF has given approval to 1126 proposals that involve the diversion of 15,639 hectares of forest land from July 13, 2011 to July 12, 2012.  The category of projects accorded the most number of approvals was road projects (308) followed by transmission lines (137).  Some of the other categories of projects that received clearance for a significant number of projects were mining, hydel and irrigation projects.  However, most land was diverted for mining related projects i.e., 40% of the total forest land diverted in this period.  Figure 1 shows a break up of the extent of forest land diverted for various categories of projects.  The number of forest clearances pending for decision by the MoEF for applications made in the years 2012, 2011 and 2010 are 197, 129 and 48 respectively. [i]

Source: “Environmental Clearance accorded from 13.07.2011 to 12.07.2012”, October 12, 2012, MoEF.

 

[1] MoEF,  Rajya Sabha, Unstarred Question no. 2520, September 4, 2012

Legislative debate: Influencing amendments to the Green Tribunal Bill, 2010

May 4th, 2010 2 comments

One of the main tasks of the Parliament is to frame laws through debate and discussion on the floor of the House.  However, there have been repeated instances where Bills introduced by the government have been passed without substantive discussion (For news reports, click here and here).  Even where Bills are debated extensively, occasions where the government introduces changes in the Bill directly as a response to Parliamentary debate are hard to find.

One recent exception is the list of amendments introduced to the National Green Tribunal Bill, 2010 by the Minister for Environment and Forests directly in response to issues raised on the floor of the House.

The Bill

The National Green Tribunal Bill, 2009 aims to set up specialised environmental courts in the country.  It will hear initial complaints as well as appeals from decisions of authorities under various environmental laws.  The Tribunal shall consist of both judicial and expert members.  Expert members have to possess technical qualifications and expertise, and also practical experience.

The Tribunal shall hear only ‘substantial question relating to the environment’.  Substantial questions are those which (a) affect the community at large, and not just individuals or groups of individuals, or (b) cause significant damage to the environment and property, or (c) cause harm to public health which is broadly measurable.

PRS in its analysis of the original (unamended) Bill, had raised the following issues (for detailed analysis, click here) :

  • The criteria to determine what a ‘substantial question related to the
    environment’ are open to interpretation.
  • The Bill may reduce access to justice in environmental matters by taking away the jurisdiction of civil courts.  All cases under laws mentioned in the Bill will now be handled by the Tribunal which will initially have benches at only five locations.
  • The Bill does not give the Tribunal jurisdiction over some laws related
    to the environment.
  • The qualifications of judicial members of the Tribunal are similar to that of the existing National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA).  The government has been unable to find qualified members for the NEAA for the past three years.  The Green Tribunal Bill gives an explicit option to the government to appoint members with administrative experience as expert members.
  • The Bill does not specify the minimum number of members the Tribunal and also does not mention of the composition of the Selection Committee for selecting members.

The Debate

In the debate on the Bill in the Lok Sabha on April 21, 2010 a number of MPs raised substantive issues with respect to the Bill.  Some of the issues raised were (From the news article quoted above):

1. The Bill fell short on parameters of “scope, efficiency, and access to justice”.

2. Setting up five benches while barring the jurisdiction of courts will “create huge distance for the poor community members and tribals to seek justice”.

3. Offenses under the Wildlife Protection Act and the Wildlife Protection Act will not be heard by the Tribunal.

4. “Section 15 puts an embargo against [persons] other than retired Judge of Supreme Court or Chief Justices of High Court. The other clause puts 15 years of administrative experience, which would open the path for packing the Tribunal with bureaucrats of the kind who did not enforce the environment related laws in their time in service.”

The Minister acknowledged the contribution of the members by stating that: “The members have made important suggestions. Even though their exact demands may not be part of the official amendments moved by the government… but I am open to their suggestions…I will remove all objectionable clauses or sections in the proposed law and keep the window of discussion open.”

The Minister’s response

In response to these issues, the Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh introduced 10 amendments to the Bill on April 30, 2010.  Though not all the issues raised were addressed, a number of changes were made.  In addition, the Minister also assured the House that issues regarding access would be addressed by the government by following a “circuit” approach for the benches of the Tribunal i.e. the benches would travel around the area within their jurisdiction to hear complaints. (To read the response, click here, page 15250)

Some of the main amendments are:

1.  Now any aggrieved person can can approach the Tribunal.  Earlier limited access was provided.

2. The whole Act will be operational by notification at the same time.  Different provisions will not be enforced separately at different points of time.

3. There is a procedure for direct appeal to the Supreme Court from the judgement of the Tribunal.

4. The number of expert and judicial members is clearly specified.

In addition, the Minister also assured that the Selection Committee for picking the members of the Tribunal will be transparent and will ensure that members are not “a parking place for retired civil servants”.