Hyderabad: Monday’s Supreme Court ruling against the opening of the controversial Sterlite copper smelting plant in Toothukudi, Tamil Nadu, has brought the role of the National Green Tribunal under the scanner once again.
Still hurting from the tribunal’s “shocking” decision to reopen the widely-criticised Vedanta-owned plant last year, activists have questioned whether the tribunal is making a relevant contribution towards environment matters.
Last December, the tribunal had overruled the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s (TNPCB) order to shut Vedanta’s copper smelter plant because it was polluting the environment.
The NGT ruled that electricity be restored to the plant, sparking widespread “shock and anger” among the public.
But in a ruling on Monday, the apex court said the tribunal did not have the authority to repeal TNPCB’s order against Sterlite and ordered the plant to remain closed.
While the Supreme Court ruling supported arguments that the tribunal had become “irrelevant”, others came out in its defence, saying it was too vital an institution to be written off.
Environmentalist Thakur Rajkumar Singh, who has filed a petition with the NGT against encroachment at the Himayatsagar and Osmansagar reservoirs in Hyderabad, says the main issue with the tribunal is its staff, or the lack of it.
Mr Singh, who is chairman of the Human Rights and Consumer Protection Cell Trust, said, “The tribunal has centres across India. But most of them are not functional as they do not have enough judges or expert members to look into cases. Only the principal branch in New Delhi is functional. This is a serious problem as it means cases are piling up. As a result, they are being dealt with rapidly and with the sole objective of closing them.”
He said the NGT was set up under an Act of Parliament in 2010 to expeditiously dispose of cases related to the environment.
“But its primary role is lost. I would rather approach the Supreme Court directly. The tribunal thus becomes unnecessary and a waste of public funds. It should be closed down,” Mr Singh said.
Environmentalist S. Jeevanand Reddy also questioned the tribunal’s relevancy as “environmental studies in Tamil Nadu had clearly shown the Sterlite plant was polluting groundwater in the region”.
He said: “It is the worst plant in terms of pollution. It makes you question if the tribunal had adequate and well-researched information before passing the order.
“The public needs to be taken into confidence as they are the people who are directly affected by pollutants. The tribunal should have thought about the people first before giving its judgement.”
Shocked by the ruling last year, activist group Federation of Tamils Against Sterlite said the apex court had vindicated their stand against the smelter plant.
Coordinator M. Krishnamoorthy said: “Studies have shown the plant was polluting groundwater and making people fall ill with serious diseases.
“So we are very thankful to the Supreme Court judgment. We are aware the order is only a temporary reprieve as the company can now approach the Madras High Court but we will keep fighting.”
Rachna Reddy, an advocate in the High Court in Hyderabad, offered a different point of view: “The tribunal would have looked into air, water and other relevant environmental clearances. As with the Supreme Court, it would have to come to a respected conclusion on reasonable grounds. So we cannot take its decision to mean it does not act for the environment.”
She said if the apex court came to a different conclusion it does not mean that the tribunal is no longer relevant. “It does a lot of good and is essential to India. The importance we give to our environment and protecting it is not at par with the West and Middle Eastern regions, so a lot needs to be done.” “The environment has huge implications for our future generations. The tribunal is the need of the hour and we must not allow it to die out. We cannot defang it,” Ms Reddy said firmly.
The NGT was contacted for a response, but had not replied at the time of filing this report.