Human Rights

The National Green Tribunal has restricted access to justice

PrashantReddyAmong the many tribunals established during the last decade, the National Green Tribunal (“NGT”) is the one that is most often in the news these days. Set up in 2010 by the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, its main purpose was to provide for the effective and expeditious disposal of cases related to the environment.

After several initial hiccups, lack of infrastructure, and constitutional challenges (which remain pending), the NGT has become rather active over the last couple of years. Many of its orders, including the one banning vehicles that are more than 15 years old, have a massive impact on society, both in terms of employment losses and pollution control.

Like most other tribunals constituted over the last decade, the NGT too is poorly designed and there is enough evidence to believe that it may be doing more harm than good. One of the many reasons for questioning the effectiveness of the NGT is the fact that its jurisdiction, both territorial and subject-matter, fails to properly ensure affordable access to justice for citizens across India.

The seat of the NGT is the first issue. According to the website of the NGT, “New Delhi is the Principal Place of Sitting of the Tribunal and Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai shall be the other four place of sitting of the Tribunal.” This is quite pathetic given that the subject matter jurisdiction of the NGT covers environmental law across a country so vast that it is classified as a sub-continent.


The National Green Tribunal at Delhi

When the Law Commission originally studied the issue of ‘Environmental Courts’ in its 186th Report, it had recommended having one environmental court in every state and had counselled against the “Government’s proposal of a single appellate Court at Delhi, which will be beyond the reach of affected parties.” For reasons that are not clear, the government completely ignored this and focussed the resources of the newly created NGT to Delhi, with a promise to allocate resources to four more locations.

The NGT’s subject matter of jurisdiction is another issue. As of now, the NGT has both appellate powers and original powers. Its appellate powers are exercised against orders passed by statutory authorities under various environmental legislation such as the Air Act and the Water Act. In pursuance of its original powers, the NGT can award damages for death or injury to any person or property if the same has resulted from “an accident or the adverse impact of an activity or operation or process”, under any of the special environmental legislation specified in Schedule I of the NGT Act. While consolidating the appellate power in the tribunal is not per se problematic, concentrating all powers to grant damages under environmental legislation with the NGT alone is a recipe for throttling access to justice because Section 29(2) of the NGT Act, 2010 completely bars the jurisdiction of civil courts in all such matters. In its report, the Law Commission had very rightly argued against such an approach.

The plaintiff should have the option of choosing between an ordinary civil court or a specialist forums such as the environmental court, the Law Commisson had argued. “As of now, for example, if a chimney in a neighbour’s house is releasing polluted air or a small sewage channel from one house or land is creating pollution to a neighbour’s house or land, parties in villages are able to approach the nearest munsif Courts which are quite accessible to these villages. If we oust the jurisdiction of these Courts, villagers cannot be expected to go all the way to the seat of the Environment Court for each adjournment and contest the same.

Not only did the Central Government not accept the Law Commission’s first recommendation of having environmental courts in each state, it also ignored the second recommendation of allowing citizens to choose between civil courts and a specialist court. As a result we have a situation today where the jurisdiction over environmental matters, which was previously spread across the high courts and the civil courts in the country, is now concentrated with a single tribunal, one that is barely able to sit in five different cities across the entire country.

A corollary of such an arrangement is that environmental jurisprudence is now concentrated with just seven judges. This is not necessarily good news because such an arrangement vests too much judicial power in the hands of only a few judges.

The NGT is a perfect example of how the executive has botched up yet another tribunal and how the Supreme Court has done little to step in and remedy the situation.

(Prashant Reddy is a Delhi-based intellectual property lawyer.)

Human Rights Litigation Uncategorized

Court (2014) is a searing look at courts but might as well have been based on a theft case

Mansih_myLawCourt (115 min, English/Marathi/Gujarati/Hindi, no subtitles; dir: Chaitanya Tamhane)

A sewage worker’s dead body is found inside a manhole in Mumbai. An ageing folk singer performing an anti-caste composition is arrested and bizarrely accused of performing an inflammatory song that may have incited the worker to commit suicide. The trial unfolds in a lower court, where the hopes and dreams of the city’s ordinary people play out. Forging these fates are the lawyers and the judge, who are observed in their personal lives beyond the theatre of the courtroom. Touching on a wide range of themes from poverty, caste, and power inequalities to antiquated laws and judicial reform, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court has all the elements of a great plot, but falls well short of being a great film. Too many issues are unsatisfactorily dealt with, leaving the viewer deeply disappointed.

We are introduced to Narayan Kamble, a rousing Dalit folk singer who moonlights as a tuition teacher to earn his living but for the most part, goes around the city’s Dalit chawls with his troupe singing the compositions of Sambhaji Bhagat. Halfway through his performance, a group of police land up and arrest him. Kamble’s role in the film, for the most part, ends here: the rest of it is centred on a criminal court, and its three main actors. We are introduced in some detail to Kamble’s lawyer, Vinay Vora, a genteel Gujarati criminal defence advocate who shops for wine and cheese, hangs out at nightclubs and listens to jazz in his car. Opposing him is Public Prosecutor Nutan (whose name, strangely enough, we don’t learn till the closing credits), a middle-class Maharashtrian who juggles her job with managing two kids and a diabetic husband, commuting by the local train everyday. Mediating these sometimes-comical interactions between the two in court is the razor-sharp Sessions Judge Sadavarte, who is a stickler for procedure even at the cost of efficiency – and in a way, also symbolises everything that is wrong with the judicial system.


Through these three characters, the film gives us a searing look at the everyday life inside a courtroom. Kamble’s trial and tribulation is an incidental vehicle. Class, language, and caste collide in sometimes-violent ways: the English-speaking Vora versus the chaste Marathi-speaking Nutan; the Dalit chawls versus the posh residences. Several problems of the judicial system are also showcased extremely well, with the focus on Vora’s frustration as he struggles to extricate his client from jail, despite the prosecution’s case crumbling further after each hearing. The personalities of the three characters play out in ironic, nuanced contrast. Vora, despite his high-flying lifestyle, is the saviour of the oppressed, visiting Dalit chawls, and speaking at Leftist seminars defending civil liberties. Nutan, despite her seemingly mundane, ordinary background, is a cheerleader for the kind of xenophobic rhetoric that would make Bal Thackeray proud. Sadavarte, for all his acumen in court and faith in legal procedure, is revealed to be a very different kind of believer in private. Tamhane develops the flaws in each character rather well, and by the end it is hard to decide whom to love – or hate – more.

Court won the Best Debut at the Venice and Mumbai Film Festivals – and it is easy to see why. The film is well made, with good dialogues, screenplay and editing. The long shot is used liberally and to good effect, and the de-glamourised colours create an effect of everyday Mumbai, as opposed to a “filmy” setting. Refreshingly, the film also manages a fairly accurate depiction of the judicial process, steering well clear of the tiresome “tareekh pe tareekh“ trope. As a story, though, it fails: one is left wondering why the director chose a very powerful background without any intention of developing it. In the end, even the theme of legal or judicial reform is not taken beyond a point. The disappointment could best be summed up by the comments of a lady who sat in front of me at the screening at the Dharamsala International Film Fest: “What was the point of choosing a political story? They could as well have used a common theft case to illustrate the point.” Go and watch Court for the film as a cinematic experience, but if you’re looking for a story or the treatment of an issue, you’d be better off watching the likes of Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade.

(Manish is a legal researcher based in Ahmedabad.)

Supreme Court of India

Access, apps, and arithmetic

NoticeAndStayAdityaVerma_SupremeCourtcolumnThree days ago in Hauz Khas in New Delhi, on Chaudhary Dalip Singh Marg:

Me: “Bhaiya, Supreme Court chaloge?” (Brother (?), will you go to the Supreme Court?)

Auto-driver: “Kaunse waale?” (Which one?)

As I informed him that there is only one Supreme Court in India, ‘India Gate ke paas’ (‘Near India Gate’), I thought to myself whether there was any chance that the auto-driver was subtly driving home the point that the Supreme Court being located only in one place made it relatively inaccessible for the rest of the country, and that smaller benches all over the country was the way to go?

Now, that would be an enlightened auto-driver. He may be right or wrong about Supreme Court benches, but by this standard, the ‘ordinary litigant’ would likely be a truly informed and empowered one!

Of course, what gave the auto-driver away was ‘Ek Saket mein bhi toh hai’ (‘There is one in Saket as well.’). It would have meant precious little to him to learn that ‘Woh toh District Court hai’ (‘That is a District Court’). If the rule of law presupposes that citizens have a basic awareness of their courts, we have a long way to go.

The astute use of technology will doubtless be critical in making courts more accessible. The Supreme Court’s recently released Display Board application for Android mobile devices seems to be an attempt in this direction. After it was released (with some fanfare), I imagined that the app would look something like this:

Current Status - All Courts
Current Status – All Courts
Current Status - Court-wise
Current Status – Court-wise
Search by Judge Name
Search by Judge Name


Search by Court Number + Item Number
Search by Court Number + Item Number. Images courtesy Akhil Verma.








At the moment, the application replicates the Supreme Court Display Board as on the website. One hopes that it is a work in progress, with an update to follow soon (there is a Java version as well).

There are harmless quirks, and there are harmless quirks that can result in a case being dismissed for ‘non-appearance’. Imagine that you are an advocate on your very first visit to the Supreme Court. You are nervous, but prepared.  You have two ‘matters’ – one each in Court 14 and (the currently unoccupied) Court 15. It looks like you will not have to run around too much because the court rooms should be adjacent.

Beware! As you bound up the stairs from the main entrance, you will see Court 1 (the Hon’ble Chief Justice’s Court) in front of you, flanked by Courts 2 and 5 to your left, and Courts 3 and 4 to your right.

You eventually figure out that Courts 6-15 are accessible through a long corridor leading to the other end of the compound. The first room to your left after the corridor, thankfully, is Court 14. Phew! Next to that is… Court 12. Confused? Where is Court 15, or even 13 for that matter! You run along further, crossing 10, 8, and 6. Then 7, 9, 11, and 13, after which is 15 (more than 100 metres away from Court 14).

Remember: 5, 2, 1, 3, 4; 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 (counting anti-clockwise).

Why this sequence? Beats me, though a Court by any other number would be just as cramped for space.

(Aditya Verma practices as an Advocate at the Supreme Court of India. He is an alumnus of NLSIU, Bangalore, and is admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales.)