The Right to Information Act came into action on 5th June 2005. True democracy does not exist unless all citizens have a fair opportunity to participate in the functioning of the nation. The right to participate in the affairs is meaningless if they have no information. The Act makes an endeavour to harmonize the interests of the citizens to seek transparency and the Government’s effort to run an efficient and accountable system. It has radically altered the administrative ethos and culture of secrecy and control, the legacy of colonial era and bring in a new era of transparency and accountability in governance.
India has grown to become an important voice in the world forum. But it still must deal with various internal issues and conflicts. Environment has long been neglected by our policymakers but now captures an important interest in governance. Environment includes various aspects of nature like forests, natural resources, wildlife, biospheres among other things. The State is the trustee of public property such as above. It is liable to guard them by command and control or creating incentives or encouraging public participation.
There are three pillars based on which environment protection can function. First, access to environment information. Secondly, public participation in decision making. And lastly, access to justice in environment matters. Citizens can thus seek information regarding the Government’s practice and its resultant effect on the environment. In Feburary 2017, it was known that only 565 environmental norm violations were reported in Gurgaon and Mewat areas of Aravali Hills between April 1992 and March 2015, and no action has been taken against any officials so far. In October 2016, in an RTI enquiry the Environment Ministry submitted that environment clearance reports for real estate projects in 1980s was not traceable. Of the 833 highly polluting industrial units in the city, only 4% have been shut in the last three years, according to the response to the RTI filed in 2016.
However, the effect of access to information limits itself to that. The moot question remains, what after that? Is there an active participation of citizens in the decision making? Recent amendments to the Land Acquisition Act 2013 removed the criteriaof Social Impact Assessment. Even after tremendous hue and cry on the part of the civil society, the State went ahead with the change. There issues remain unaddressed. Instances like these compel us to think that is the public participation limited to creating pressure. Is there access to justice in the matter? The time delay, the cumbersome process and the investment of resources into getting justice is disheartening. With the National Green Tribunal furnishing speedier trials and deviating from procedural roadblock, there is hope the need for speedier justice in environment matters led to the formation of The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on 18th October 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010. It is a statutory tribunal which was enacted by the parliament for inquiring, examining and adjudicating the matters concerning environmental disputes. It was a result of the long procedure and the demand for such tribunal started long back in the year 1984 after the Bhopal gas tragedy.
The necessity of forming tribunals outweigh its random glitches. A tribunal may have no uniformity in mode of appointment or qualifications of members of tribunals; no uniformity in procedures employed by them; no uniformity in provisions for appeals to Courts. However, these frequently stated demerits are what provide these authorities with their unique features. Green tribunals consist of not only judicial officials but also experts in the matter of environmental science and policy. They aid in providing varied opinions resulting in a comprehensive analysis of any ecological issue. Procedural impropriety helps them save time and resource and deliver swifter decisions.
The Green Tribunal definitely proves to be an important part of the Judiciary. They inspire confidence in the public mind and encourage citizen participation in this matter. They have competence, objectivity and a judicial approach. Noteworthy judgements by the NGT are the Yamuna Floodplain Case where they imposed a fine of Rs.5 crores on Art of Living Foundation because it has organized World Cultural Festival on Yamuna floodplain and affected the environment in March 2015. The National Green Tribunal has cancelled the clearance given by the then Union Environment and Forests Minister, Jairam Ramesh, to the Parsa East and Kante-Basan captive coal blocks in the Hasdeo-Arand forests of Chhattisgarh, overruling the statutory Forest Advisory Committee.
However, despite various proactive steps being taken by the tribunal the pollution levels have been continuously rising over the years. This is due to lack of effective support from government. Inefficiency of the Central and State Pollution Control Boards is another reason for it. Without adequate support from the government side NGT is unable to have a clear vigilance over the country due to its limited capacity and resources. The lack of suo-moto powers to the Tribunal also curbs its ambit of functioning.
The question remains, does Right to Information create effective tool for environment protection? In my humble opinion, the bone of contention is different. Information is necessary to create clarity but an adequate enforcement post gathering information is what makes it effective.