The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is currently reeling under vacancies of judges and expert members, making its four zonal benches across India non-functional.
Four zonal benches in Chennai (South), Kolkata (Eastern), Bhopal (Central), Pune (Western) are barely functioning. Yet another four circuit benches in Shimla, Shillong, Jodhpur and Kochi that can be convened on basis of need when bunching of cases needs to occur have not been activated for a long time.
Union Secretary for Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) CK Mishra confirmed that posts for seven judges and six technical experts that are required for running of these benches are lying vacant.
“We advertised for appointing seven judges but we have selected only one judge from the process. We also advertised for seven technical members and have selected only one. We have already re-advertised the judicial vacancies and vacancies for technical experts will be re-advertised too,” Mishra said.
He also said, “Unless you have that number of members, you cannot run the bench. However, those benches are not dead, they are being handled by the central bench through video-conferencing. You cannot stop people from filing cases in the regional benches however they are being diverted to the central bench.”
No new appointments
Filling up of vacancies is a long drawn process and the green court has not seen any new appointments since the last two years. Currently NGT runs on the strength of four judges – Chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel, Justice Raghuvendra Singh Rathod, Justice Sonam Phintso Wangdi and Justice K Ramakrishnan, as well as two expert members, both forest service bureaucrats, SS Garbayal and Nagin Nanda.
Official sources said that additionally two more members — Siddhant Das, who is the current Director General (Forests) and former Additional Director General Saibal Dasgupta — have been appointed as expert members but are yet to assume charge.
Experts say that with four judges and currently two expert members, and two more to be added, the tribunal is still short staffed. “According to rules, there should be at least ten judges and ten experts, and the number can go up to twenty in each case, but we have currently have only six to eight judges and experts in total,” said Delhi-based senior environment lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay.
While the Tribunal’s orders are binding and it has power to grant relief in the form of compensation and damages to affected persons, Upadhyay also said the shortage of judges and experts is rendering NGT toothless and weak.
“The entire court craft is affected by video conferencing. Cases in remote areas are being affected by this. Arguing in the court is lot more than talking to a face on screen. How do you convince a judge, hand over documents, argue effectively on a video call? This can be done in an emergency, but how can an emergency last for two years? There is a certain political design to this for rendering NGT dysfunctional, as if it does not matter anymore. Once bubbling with activity these zonal benches are now ineffective and we are wasting human resources and massive infrastructure which were created to serve a purpose. This is a waste of the tax payers money. Literally by the hour, money is being lost,” said Upadhyay.
According to the publicly available data, 30,972 cases have been instituted in NGT since 2011 till date, out of which 27,876 have been disposed off and 3096 (up to 10 per cent) are pending. Established in 2010, as per the National Green Tribunal Act is a specialized judicial body equipped with expertise solely for the purpose of adjudicating environmental cases in the country. The Tribunal is tasked with providing effective and expeditious remedy in cases relating to environmental protection, conservation of forests and other natural resources and enforcement of any legal right relating to environment.