The Ministry of Environment and Forests recently shifted all Goa cases from the jurisdiction of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) bench in Pune to the principal bench in New Delhi. This was done at the request of the Goa government, which argued that it could handle the cases more effectively in the capital because of better legal resources. This created an outcry among environmental litigants in Goa.
What will be the impact of shifting Goa cases from the National Green Tribunal’s Pune bench to New Delhi? We ask experts.
The Goa government wants to drastically cut down opposition to infrastructure projects that impact the environment.
Norma Alvares, an environmental lawyer representing Goa Foundation, a leading environmental action group.
The decision to shift Goa from the jurisdiction of the Pune bench of the NGT will vitally affect the citizens from approaching the tribunal for relief, and hamper access to justice.
While it is true that the Goa state has a legal team in Delhi and it is convenient to have representation there, the state had over four years to build a legal team in Pune, as the western circuit bench was set up in 2012.
Until 2015, the Goa government was negotiating with the Centre to have a circuit bench in Goa. For a year, this conversation was suspended. In 2017, the chief minister makes a request to shift it to Delhi, and it is accepted quickly.
This defeats the whole purpose of establishing green tribunals to give citizens an opportunity to raise their concerns against environmental destruction.
Goa would ask for such a shift only because most of the petitions filed before the NGT are challenging government action, which they see as a barrier to their infrastructure work. By shifting the cases to Delhi, the government is looking at drastically cutting down any opposition to projects that could impact the environment.
Many environmentally conscious ordinary citizens file their own cases; we encourage them to appear in person. They usually travel in their cars or take a bus. The bench in Pune enables them to return on the same day without spending on hotels. Pune is accessible to lawyers in Mumbai and Goa.
The Goa Foundation had about 15 cases pending since 2002 transferred to the Pune tribunal in 2013. Within a year, the tribunal had heard and disposed of over 11 cases.
If 480 kilometres is difficult for the government to cover, how will litigants cover more than 1,800 kilometres?
Shifting to NGT Delhi will make it more convenient, save time, cost and resources.
Atmaram Barve, coordinator of the BJP’s legal cell in Goa
The NGT bench in Pune is for the west zone, and covers Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa. In general, we observed that more than 60 per cent of the matters that Pune’s NGT bench handles come from Goa. But there is only one flight every day from Goa to Pune, at 1:30 pm, while in the other direction, the only flight is at 12 noon.
Our government lawyers have to travel the day before, and book a Maharashtra government circuit house or private accommodation to stay overnight. Then, there is pressure on the lawyers to get the case listed early in the morning, so that they can catch the 12 noon flight back to Goa. If the matter gets delayed, an extra day is wasted in Pune.
The main problem is the lack of direct air connectivity. Government resources and the time of our staff is wasted. By road, it takes eight hours between Goa and Pune. There is a lot of inconvenience for litigants too. Officials from the departments of science and technology, revenue, forest, mines and geology, and pollution control, have to be stationed permanently in Pune.
On the other hand, there are several flights to Delhi, sometimes cheaper flights, and there are two Goa government buildings for accommodation too.
If there is a need for appeal by either the government or the aggrieved litigant, they can directly approach the Supreme Court in Delhi. They can do all the legal work during the same visit itself.
Shifting Goa under the ambit of the Delhi bench is in the interest of convenience, saving time, cost and resources.
Quick, speedy and effective justice is what the people got from the NGT, Pune Bench
Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer and managing trustee of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, New Delhi.
In 1911, the British decided to shift the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi. The decision had less to do with the fact that Delhi was more ‘central’ in terms of location, and more with the fact that the heightened level of nationalism in Bengal was posing a serious threat to the British dominance. Delhi was a safe choice.
The central government seems to be taking inspiration from this to shift Goa from the jurisdiction of NGT’s Pune bench to the principal bench in New Delhi.
The state government argues that the reason is connectivity; nothing could be more absurd. The real reason is not difficult to fathom. Over the last few years, people in Goa affected by pollution, mining, deforestation and overall environment mismanagement have been able to approach the NGT in Pune and get justice. Taking overnight trains and buses, they reached Pune in the morning, argued their cases and returned the same day. Quick, speedy and effective justice is what the people wanted and they got through the NGT bench in Pune.
The decision to shift Goa matters is aimed at making it difficult for people of Goa to access the NGT. Now, they have to take either an expensive flight or a very long train journey to reach New Delhi. Clearly, for companies and the government violating environmental norms, ‘achhe din’ have just begun; for the people, it’s a long and arduous journey for environmental justice.
Approaching any forum in New Delhi is intimidating, costlier, and time consuming
Pamela D’Mello, an independent writer based in Goa.
The shift would act as a deterrent to many ordinary citizens who have approached the NGT in Pune in public interest, or in their private capacities, or as aggrieved village committees.
Approaching any forum in New Delhi is intimidating, costlier, and time consuming. Earlier, quite a number of cases were being handled by litigants themselves, instead of hiring lawyers. A quick scan of the NGT Pune online archives shows 85 judgements from 2011 to 2016. They relate to coastal regulation zoning laws, protection of beaches, sand dunes, turtle nesting sites, sluice gates of rivers, hill cutting, forest and tree destruction, violations by resorts, builders, even the government. And because they got redressal from the NGT, they petitioned it often.
Lawyers say cases from Goa take up 45-50 % of the tribunal’s time in Pune, much more than states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, which are several times the size of tiny Goa.
Goa has an educated middle class and involved citizens, who have a deep and abiding love for their ancestral villages and their home state, its environment, culture, way of life. And they try their best to protect these, within the ambit of the law, by attending village gram sabhas, using the Right to Information Act to collect information and approach the courts.
Their commitment is much higher than that of their political class, which sees the state as something that can be encashed. No sooner a government is elected, each legislator will corner budgets for an ‘x’ amount of “development projects”, with dodgy employment or utility value in the long run.
Tourist arrival figures and projections are hyper-inflated to justify mammoth infrastructure that is unnecessary, is a kickback dream, and leaves less public funds for spending on education, health, public transport and civic needs.
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