New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday advised the Narendra Modi government to amend the Official Languages Act, 1963 to allow publication of official notifications in languages other than Hindi and English.
The Act stipulates the government must publish notifications only in Hindi and English.
“Your government should consider amendment of the Official Languages Act. These days, translation is the easiest thing on Earth. We translate judgments, Parliament has instant translation software. It is time for you to update your Act,” a bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
The bench was hearing the central government’s appeal against the Delhi High Court’s 12 August order asking the former to reply to a plea seeking contempt action against it for not publishing the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2020, in 22 Indian languages.
The plea, filed by environmentalist Vikram Tongad, said the central government has wilfully disobeyed a judicial order to publish the draft EIA in all languages mentioned in the eight schedule of the Constitution within 10 days, starting 30 June.
The petition also said that various other environmental activists have criticised the government for releasing the draft EIA notification only in Hindi and English, and that too a couple of days before the lockdown was imposed on 24 March.
This had taken away the rights of citizens to file their objections, the petition added.
While the CJI’s bench stayed the contempt notice against the government, it said that the spirit of the high court order was correct.
“There could be people in areas like Karnataka or rural Maharashtra or Nagaland where people don’t know Hindi or English,” CJI Bobde noted.
Backed by the Environment Protection Act, EIA is a legal process that examines, evaluates and predicts the environmental costs of any development project.
‘Rules can be published in Hindi & English, responses in any language’
Mehta urged the top court to stay the high court order concerning publication of draft EIA notification in multiple languages. He argued that rules permitted publication only Hindi and English.
His submission also said the high court’s order fell under the official language rules and hence was beyond the court’s jurisdiction.
Mehta, however, submitted that responses to the draft EIA can be in any language, prompting the CJI to advise a change in the rules.
Senior advocate Gopal Sankarnarayana, appearing for Tongad, claimed the central government had itself asked all states to publish the draft EIA in three languages. He then asked what prevented the government from translating the draft notification for the convenience of the general public.
The Delhi High Court had on 30 June ordered translations of the draft EIA notification as it would aid in the effective dissemination of changes proposed by the government. The court had also said that translations should be done in at least those languages which are mentioned in the eighth schedule of the Constitution.
This order had come on Tongad’s plea seeking an extension of the time given to people to respond to the draft EIA until September, or till the pandemic subsisted.
“This draft notification proposes significant changes…including removing public consultation entirely in certain instances, reducing the time for public consultation from 45 days to 40 days, and allowing post facto approvals for projects,” his plea said.
In a related development, the Karnataka High Court had on 5 August restrained the environment ministry from publishing the final notification based on the draft EIA, after the central government failed to publish the draft in Kannada.