India Sets Up Green Tribunal to Try Environmental Crimes

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Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced the launch of a National Green Tribunal Tuesday, a step toward toughening environmental laws in a country faced with growing industrialization-related environmental issues.

At a workshop last year in New Delhi, Vijai Sharma, secretary of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forest, announced that the country produces more than 165 million tons of trash each day. Photo: Flickr/acameronhuff

The third country in the world to implement such a tribunal, after Australia and New Zealand, India’s creation of a separate judiciary system for environmental cases aims to alleviate a backlogged court system, while holding polluters to a greater financial liability.

Justice Lokeshwar Singh Panta has been named Chairperson of the Tribunal, which “has been empowered to issue directions for the compensation and restitution of damage caused from actions of environmental negligence,” according to the Ministry of Environment and Forests. In doing so, this represents the first body of its kind required by a parent statue to apply the “polluter pays principle.”

The tribunal is to be comprised of environmental expert members, qualified to rule on technical cases related to water quality, forestry practices and toxic waste among others.

Though the tribunal is clearly a step in the right direction, it isn’t India’s first stab at trying environmental cases through separate judiciary bodies. The National Environment Tribunal was established in 1995 to handle cases related to hazardous waste, with the National Environment Appellate Authority created two years later to focus on industry-related clearances challenged by the public.

Critics of both bodies have deemed them largely unsuccessful, with many cases bypassing the appellate level for higher courts. A July 7 op-ed piece in The Hindu, written shortly after passage of the National Green Tribunal Act, paints a dim picture of public opinion surrounding the tribunal. The piece cites ambiguity in parties responsible for damage payments and industry appeal allowances as two faults, pointed out by retired Supreme Court Justice N. Venkatachala.

Regardless of previous downfalls in this area, those optimistic about the tribunal praise its necessity. India has been plagued with issues accompanying growing industrialization, including pollution of waterways and air, along with a growing problem of electronic waste generation and informal recycling practices.

Though importation of e-waste into India has been and remains a problem, India’s population and growing usage of technology is likely forcing a turning point in obsolete electronics generation. In a joint 2010 Arizona State University-Nankai University (China) study, “Forecasting Global Generation of Obsolete Personal Computers”, results showed “that the volume of obsolete PCs generated in developing regions will exceed that of developed regions by 2016-2018.”

The study estimates obsolete PC generation in developing countries at 400-700 million units by 2030, doubling estimates for developed regions. With that level of generation, impacts of informal recycling practices weigh heavily, with India currently facing great health and environmental hazards due to unregulated operations.

India also faces a growing problem of trash generation, with more than a billion people producing 165 million tons each day. Rapid urbanization and unplanned development, along with relatively low municipal recycling rates, have left the country struggling to meet the demand for waste management.

Though India has a long list of environmental issues, not unlike other countries, its passing of the Tribunal Act and establishment of the judiciary body is indicative of recent acts that spread the environmental message loud and clear, including Monday’s urging by a government panel to deny construction rights of a $12 billion South Korean steel plant because of environmental concerns.

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