Why in news?

  • The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on 8th May 2020 directed LG Polymers India to deposit an initial amount of Rs. 50 crore for the damage caused by the gas leak in Visakhapatnam.
  • NGT’s Order found LG Polymers prima facie liable under the 19th century English law principle of “strict liability”, which was made redundant in India by the Supreme Court in 1986. Lawyers say the term “absolute liability” should have been used instead.
  • The directions came after the green panel took suo motu cognisance of the gas leak incident that left at least 11 people dead and affected several others.

What actions did NGT take?

  • Apart from the order against LG Polymers India to pay Rs. 50 Crores:
  • The green panel also constituted a five-member fact-finding committee, to be headed by a former A.P. High Court judge, to probe the incident and furnish a report to the tribunal.
  • A bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel also issued notice to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board and the Union Environment Ministry, seeking their response on the incident by May 18.

Strict Liability Principle

  • Under the “strict liability principle”, a party is not liable and need not pay compensation if a hazardous substance escapes his premises by accident or by an “act of God’” among other circumstances.
  • The Supreme Court, while deciding the Oleum gas leak case of Delhi, found strict liability woefully inadequate to protect citizens’ rights in an industrialised economy like India and replaced it with the ‘absolute liability principle’.

Supreme Court on Absolute Liability Principle

  • The country was then reeling under the shock of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy.
  • The court under then Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati wanted corporations to be made fully liable for future “undeserved suffering of thousands of innocent citizens”.
  • So, under the absolute liability principle, the apex court held that a company in a hazardous industry cannot claim any exemption.
  • It has to mandatorily pay compensation, whether or not the disaster was caused by its negligence.
  • The court said a hazardous enterprise has an “absolute non-delegable duty to the community”.
  • If any harm results on account of such activity, the enterprise must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm irrespective of the fact that the enterprise had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part.
  • The court found that strict liability, evolved in an 1868 Oleum gas leak judgment, provided companies with several exemptions from assuming liability.
  • Absolute liability, on the other hand, provided them with no defence or exemptions. The principle of absolute liability is part of Article 21.

National Green Tribunal (NGT)

  • The NGT was established on October 18, 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010, passed by the Central Government.
  • National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 is an Act of the Parliament of India which enables creation of a special tribunal to handle the expeditious disposal of the cases pertaining to environmental issues.
  • NGT Act draws inspiration from the India’s constitutional provision of (Constitution of India/Part III) Article 21 Protection of life and personal liberty, which assures the citizens of India the right to a healthy environment.
  • The stated objective of the Central Government was to provide a specialized forum for effective and speedy disposal of cases pertaining to environment protection, conservation of forests and for seeking compensation for damages caused to people or property due to violation of environmental laws or conditions specified while granting permissions.

Structure of National Green Tribunal

  • Following the enactment of the said law, the Principal Bench of the NGT has been established in the National Capital – New Delhi, with regional benches in Pune (Western Zone Bench), Bhopal (Central Zone Bench), Chennai (Southern Bench) and Kolkata (Eastern Bench). Each Bench has a specified geographical jurisdiction covering several States in a region.
  • The Chairperson of the NGT is a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, Head Quartered in Delhi.
  • Other Judicial members are retired Judges of High Courts. Each bench of the NGT will comprise of at least one Judicial Member and one Expert Member.
  • Expert members should have a professional qualification and a minimum of 15 years’ experience in the field of environment/forest conservation and related subjects.

Powers of NGT

The NGT has the power to hear all civil cases relating to environmental issues and questions that are linked to the implementation of laws listed in Schedule I of the NGT Act. These include the following:

  1. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974;
  2. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977;
  3. The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980;
  4. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981;
  5. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986;
  6. The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991;
  7. The Biological Diversity Act, 2002.

This means that any violations pertaining ONLY to these laws, or any order / decision taken by the Government under these laws can be challenged before the NGT.

Importantly, the NGT has NOT been vested with powers to hear any matter relating to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and various laws enacted by States relating to forests, tree preservation etc.

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