Limitation period to approach National Green Tribunal

National Green Tribunal:

The Green Tribunal has been established under a constitutional mandate provided in Schedule VII List I Entry 13 of the Constitution of India, to implement the decision taken at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The Tribunal is a specialized judicial body for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment. The right to healthy environment has been construed as a part of the right to life under Article 21 by way of judicial pronouncements. Therefore, the Tribunal has special jurisdiction for enforcement of environmental rights.

Scope of appeal to Supreme Court:

Merely because the remedy of appeal is provided against the decision of the Tribunal on a substantial question of law alone, that does not ipso facto permit the appellants to agitate their appeal to seek re-appreciation of the factual matrix of the entire matter. The appellants cannot seek to re-argue their entire case to seek wholesale re-appreciation of evidence and the factual matrix that has been considered by the Tribunal is ex facie impermissible under Section 22. There cannot be fresh appreciation or re-appreciation of facts and evidence in a statutory appeal under this provision.

Jurisdiction of Green Tribunal:

The jurisdiction of the Tribunal is provided under Sections 14, 15 and 16 of the Act. Section 14 provides the jurisdiction over all civil cases where a substantial question relating to environment (including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment) is involved. However, such question should arise out of implementation of the enactments specified in Schedule I.

The Tribunal has also jurisdiction under Section 15(1)(a) of the Act to provide relief and compensation to the victims of pollution and other environmental damage arising under the enactments specified in Schedule I. Further, under Section 15(1)(b) and 15(1)(c) the Tribunal can provide for restitution of property damaged and for restitution of the environment for such area or areas as the Tribunal may think fit. It is noteworthy that Section 15(1)(b) & (c) have not been made relatable to Schedule I enactments of the Act. Rightly so, this grants a glimpse into the wide range of powers that the Tribunal has been cloaked with respect to restoration of the environment.

Section 15(1)(c) of the Act is an entire island of power and jurisdiction read with Section 20 of the Act. The principles of sustainable development, precautionary principle and polluter pays, propounded by this Court by way of multiple judicial pronouncements, have now been embedded as a bedrock of environmental jurisprudence under the NGT Act. Therefore, wherever the environment and ecology are being compromised and jeopardized, the Tribunal can apply Section 20 for taking restorative measures in the interest of the environment.

Beneficial Legislation:

The NGT Act being a beneficial legislation, the power bestowed upon the Tribunal would not be read narrowly. An interpretation which furthers the interests of environment must be given a broader reading. (See Kishsore Lal v. Chairman, Employees’ State Insurance Corpn. (2007) 4 SCC 579, para 17). The existence of the Tribunal without its broad restorative powers under Section 15(1)(c) read with Section 20 of the Act, would render it ineffective and toothless, and shall betray the legislative intent in setting up a specialized Tribunal specifically to address environmental concerns. The Tribunal, specially constituted with Judicial Members as well as with Experts in the field of environment, has a legal obligation to provide for preventive and restorative measures in the interest of the environment.

Limitation to file petition:

Section 15 of the Act provides power & jurisdiction, independent of Section 14 thereof. Further, Section 14(3) juxtaposed with Section 15(3) of the Act, are separate provisions for filing distinct applications before the Tribunal with distinct periods of limitation, thereby amply demonstrating that jurisdiction of the Tribunal flows from these Sections (i.e. Sections 14 and 15 of the Act) independently. The limitation provided in Section 14 is a period of 6 months from the date on which the cause of action first arose and whereas in Section 15 it is 5 years. Therefore, the legislative intent is clear to keep Section 14 and 15 as self contained jurisdictions.

According to appellants, environmental clearance was granted to the respondent No. 9 on 17.02.2012 for which notice was published in the leading newspaper on 12.03.2012 and 14.03.2012. Modified building plan was approved on 30.08.2012, which was followed up to 10.08.2014. Similar events had taken place who had been granted environmental clearance on 30.09.2013. The application had to be filed within a period of six months from the date on which cause of action for such dispute has first arisen in terms of Section 14 of the NGT Act. Admittedly, the present application has been filed in March, 2014 and according to them, it is much beyond the prescribed period of limitation. Also, there is no application for condonation of delay accompanying the main application. Therefore, the Tribunal will not have jurisdiction to condone the delay.

The OA No. 222 of 2014 was not an application simpliciter under Section 14 of the Act. It was an application where a specific prayer has been made with reference to Lake Development Authority’s (“LDA”) Report dated 12.06.2013 and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (“MoEF”) Monitoring Committee Report dated 14.08.2013 for restoration of ecologically sensitive land and for main- taining the sensitive in its natural condition so that the ecological bal- ance of the area is not disturbed. It is clear from the documentary evi- dence supported by data, that the project proponents have committed breaches and the implementation of the project is bound to have seri- ous adverse impact on the ecology, hydrology and the environment in the catchment area of Bellandur Lake. The environmental degradation as established from the documents would give rise to an independent cause of action. Therefore, this was a petition under Section 15 of the Act and thus it could be filed within 5 years from the date on which the cause for such compensation or relief first arose.

In fact, in the original application before the Tribunal there was no mention of the provision under which it was being filed. It is well settled principle of law that non-mention of or erroneous mention of the provision of law would not be of any relevance, if the Court had the requisite jurisdiction to pass an order. It would be a mere irregularity and would not vitiate the application or the judicial order of the Tribunal.

Overriding Powers of Tribunal:

Section 33 of the Act provides an overriding effect to the provisions of the Act over anything inconsistent contained in any other law or in any instrument having effect by virtue of law other than this Act. This gives the Tribunal overriding powers over anything inconsistent contained in the KIAD Act, Planning Act, Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act, 1976 (“KMC Act”); and the Revised Master Plan of Bengaluru, 2015 (“RMP”). A Central legislation enacted under Entry 13 of List I Schedule VII of the Constitution of India will have the overriding effect over State legislations. The corollary is that the Tribunal while providing for restoration of environment in an area, can specify buffer zones around specific lakes & water bodies in contradiction with zoning regulations under these statutes or the RMP.

Decision of Tribunal:

After elaborately considering this question, the Tribunal has concluded as under:

“51. ….For these reasons, we find no merit in this contention of respondent Nos. 9 and 10. The purpose of the doctrine of res judicata is to provide finality and conclusiveness to the judicial decisions as well as to avoid multiplicity of litigation. In the present case, the question of re-agitating the issues or agitating similar issues in two different proceedings does not arise. The ambit and scope of jurisdiction is clearly decipherable. The jurisdictions of the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka and this Tribunal are operating in distinct fields and have no commonality in so far as the issues which are raised directly and substantially in these petitions, as well as the reliefs that have been prayed for before the Hon’ble High Court and the Tribunal are concerned. There is no commonality in parties before the Tribunal and the High Court. The ‘cause of action’ in both proceedings is different and distinct. The matters substantially and materially in issue in one proceedings are not the same in the other proceeding. There is hardly any likelihood of conflicting judgments being pronounced by the Tribunal on the one hand and the High Court on the other. Therefore, we are of the considered view that the present applications are neither hit by the principles of res judicata nor constructive res judicata. We also hold that culmination of proceedings before the Tribunal into a final judgment would not offend the principle of ‘judicial propriety’, because of the Writ Petitions pending before the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka.”

Conclusion of Supreme Court:

We do not find any error in the aforesaid conclusion of the Tribunal. We are of the view that the Tribunal was justified in holding that the objections taken by the respondent Nos. 9 and 10 do not satisfy the basic ingredients to attract the application of res judicata or constructive res judicata.

[Source: Mantri Technoze Pvt. Ltd. vs Forward Foundation decided by SC on 5 March, 2019]

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