The Supreme Court of India has held1 that the National Green Tribunal ("NGT") cannot delegate its adjudicatory powers under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 ("NGT Act") to an expert committee constituted by it. In its judgment, the Supreme Court also emphasised that the NGT Act empowers the NGT to adjudicate on substantial questions relating to environment, and that the NGT has sufficient expertise to adjudicate on these issues.
Facts of the case:
The Supreme Court was considering an appeal against a judgment passed by the NGT. In its judgment, NGT had dismissed an application concerning the issue of dumping of unsegregated and untreated municipal solid waste at an open landfill site in Surat, Gujarat. The applicant alleged, inter alia, that the dumping of waste in the open area without prior treatment was in violation of various environmental legislations. Such disposal is also resulting in irreversible contamination of local water bodies and ground water and causing severe air pollution due to the burning of waste, which is damaging the local ecology and adversely affecting the health of local communities.
NGT's Western Bench at Pune considered this issue and issued various directions to statutory authorities for effective management of solid waste in Surat and formulation of an action plan to address issues raised in the application. However, in subsequent hearings, NGT's Principal Bench disposed of this application directing the applicant to approach apex, regional and state-level committees, which were constituted by the NGT in its previous judgment to monitor the implementation of Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. These committees have been given the liberty to issue directions to any authority for execution of the orders of NGT. The applicant was provided liberty to represent the case and raise all grievances before the appropriate committee.
Issues before the Supreme Court:
The Supreme Court had to determine whether the NGT's judgment directing the appellants to approach the appropriate committee for relief, rather than itself considering the substantive issues raised in the application, was sustainable in law.
Supreme Court observed that NGT is an expert adjudicatory body on environment constituted under the NGT Act.2 The issues raised and reliefs sought by the applicant before NGT are covered within NGT's jurisdiction in terms of Sections 14, 15 and 20 of the NGT Act. NGT Act entrusts adjudicatory functions to NGT because of its specialised constitution and expertise to deal with multi-disciplinary issues concerning environment in general.
Supreme Court further deliberated on the powers of Courts and Tribunals to set up expert committees for assistance, and observed as:
"Courts/tribunals can set up expert committees because the fact-finding exercise in many matters can be complex, technical and time-consuming, and may often require the committees to conduct field visits. These committees are set up with specific terms of reference outlining their mandate, and their reports have to conform to the mandate. Once these committees submit their final reports to the court/tribunal, it is open to the parties to object to them, which is then adjudicated upon. The role of these expert committees does not substitute the adjudicatory role of the court or tribunal. The role of an expert committee appointed by an adjudicatory forum is only to assist it in the exercise of adjudicatory functions by providing them better data and factual clarity, which is also open to challenge by all concerned parties. Allowing for objections to be raised and considered makes the process fair and participatory for all stakeholders."
In this context, Supreme Court also referred to the judgment in the case of Sanghar Zuber Ismail v. Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and Another3. In this case, Supreme Court held that NGT cannot refuse to hear a challenge to an environmental clearance under its appellate jurisdiction and delegate the process of adjudicating on issues related to its compliance to an expert committee. It cannot be allowed to constitute committees to undertake a function which it is entrusted to do under the NGT Act.
In this context, Supreme Court held that, while NGT can constitute an expert committee to assist the NGT, for instance, by carrying out a fact-finding exercise, but the adjudication must be carried out by the NGT. In the impugned judgment, NGT abdicated its jurisdiction and entrusted judicial functions to an administrative expert committee. As adjudication is not a delegable function, NGT's impugned judgment delegating its core adjudicatory functions to technical committees was considered as unsustainable in law and set aside by the Supreme Court.
1. Kantha Vibhag Yuva Koli Samaj Parivartan Trust and Others v. State of Gujarat and Others, Civil Appeal No 1046 of 2019, judgment dated 21 January, 2022.
2. Hanuman Laxman Aroskar v. Union of India, (2019) 15 SCC 401.
3. 2021 SCC OnLine SC 669
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