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

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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, clickhere) :

  • 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”.