A notification from the Ministry of Environment and Forests transferring cases filed by litigants in Goa from the National Green Tribunal bench in Pune to the principal bench in New Delhi has created an uproar among environmental activists and citizens in the coastal state. Activists see it as a move to restrict their access to the NGT and hurt the environmental conservation movement in the state, as litigants will find it more time consuming and expensive to travel to the national capital for cases.

The Bombay High Court’s Goa bench has stayed the Environment Ministry’s transfer order and has scheduled a hearing in the case on September 5.

The Pune West Zone of the NGT caters to Maharashtra and Gujarat and some union territories as well, but cases from Goa account for 40%-50% of those heard by the tribunal, activists said.

Green activists said that the Union ministry’s notification was dated August 10, they only got to know of it in late August. Meanwhile, on August 23, the Bombay High Court took up the matter suo motu.

On hearing of the notification, three petitioners quickly filed their challenges before the NGT. The petitioners include environmental action group Goa Foundation, the Baina Ramponkar and Fishing Canoe Owners Society (a fishermen’s body), activist Kashinath Shetye and other individuals and village forums. The High Court has listed the petitions for hearing on Tuesday.

For a week, litigants and the public were perplexed by the transfer order. “The notification had no explanation, no whereas, nothing,” said Goa Foundation advocate Norma Alvares. “There are a substantial number of cases from Goa. Week after week, the Pune NGT board takes up Goa matters on Thursday and Friday and even part of Wednesday.” Alvares estimates that Goa comprises 50 % of all matters before the Pune Bench. Goa Foundation had earlier petitioned authorities to set up a circuit bench of the NGT in Goa itself, owing to the large volume of cases.

The reason for the shift became clear when Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar told the media on Friday that it was on his request that the environment ministry had initiated the transfer of Goa matters shifted to the New Delhi Tribunal. The Goa government, he said, had a proper legal set up in New Delhi, but none in Pune, making it easier for the state government to defend its cases in the national capital.

However, Goa residents and activists believe the step was taken only because of the robust citizen participation it sees. “Though Maharasthra and Gujarat are much bigger states, a small state like Goa throws up many more petitions because Goans take their environment issues very seriously” said Dr Claude Alvares, Director of the Goa Foundation.

Citizens said the government was trying to curb them to make it easier to do business in Goa, because many projects in the coastal state have been stalled over litigation. “It [the transfer] will make things very difficult for us Goa litigants,” said activist Abhijeet Prabhudessai. “Pune is an overnight bus journey, litigants can leave Goa at night, reach in time for the day’s hearing and catch the bus back, that day itself, if they have a matter. New Delhi is expensive and distant for us to access.” Pune is about 450 km away from Goa, while Delhi is close to 1,900 km away.

NGT hurdles

The National Green Tribunal Act came into being after an Act of Parliament passed in 2010. Since then, only the NGT is empowered to entertain cases pertaining to environment and forest laws across the country. No lower court can hear a plea and the challenge against decisions of the NGT lies only with the Supreme Court. Comprising expert and judicial members, the tribunal is charged with effective disposal of cases within a maximum of six months.

In 2011, the Union government set up the NGT’s regional benches at five locations. The Western bench at Pune was designated to hear all appeals pertaining to Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa. Since it was set up, the NGT’s Pune bench has passed more than a hundred judgements in Goa-related matters.

The Goa BJP government has repeatedly made known its displeasure over activists approaching the NGT. In 2016, at his birthday felicitation function, BJP leader Laxmikant Pareskar, who was then the Goa chief minister, took a dig at citizens and NGOs who frequently approached the tribunal. “Anyone comes as an environmentalist and takes the government to court or National Green Tribunal in the name of protecting the environment, Parsekar reportedly said. “It is a fashion in Goa now to halt or obstruct development works.”

As Union defence minister in 2016, Manohar Parrikar attacked NGOs for obstructing development work and said there was need to find out the source of their funding to approach tribunals like the NGT, which he estimated to cost at least Rs 3 lakh per case. In 2013, Parrikar had criticised the NGT’s nationwide ban on sand mining, calling it a case of “judicial overreach”.

Taking action

With a long coastline, many riverine areas and a large forest cover, Goa is environmentally gifted. This is also why its citizens have been proactive in ensuring that the ecological balance of the state is not disturbed by construction activity. Goa’s environmental activists and citizen’s groups have frequently approached the NGT to challenge several big-ticket projects that allegedly flouted environmental norms.

For instance, the Goa Foundation had challenged the construction of a bridge across Mandovi River that had not allegedly received Coastal Regulation Zone and other clearances. Activists also plan to approach the NGT over the controversial Mopa Airport Greenfield Project that is slated to cost more than Rs 3,000 crore and also object to plans to increase coal handling at the Mormugao Port Trust.

In another public interest litigation by Goa resident Sagardeep Sirsaikar, the Tribunal ordered the cancellation of trade and liquor licenses and discontinue power and water connections to a hotel-owned club property in the Anjuna beach area which had allegedly made some illegal extensions, In early August, it ordered 25 miners to appear before the environment ministry or face closure.

Village-level action groups have also regularly knocked on the the NGT’s doors. Where state environment authorities like the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority have failed to act on violations and non-compliance allegations, citizens have successfully petitioned the NGT in dozens of cases, including some involving starred hotels, golf courses, resorts, private homes or condominiums. For instance, villagers of a South Goa village of Arrosim were able to challenge permissions granted to a 226-room five-star resort to be built in ecologically fragile areas of their village.

Padmashree awardee Norma Alvares said the NGT permits citizens to argue cases on their own and the time limit of six months reassures citizens of timely justice.

The Tribunal has also backed citizens in protecting turtle nesting beaches, no development zones of beaches and potential pollution from casino boats.

Goa Foundation director Dr Claude Alvares said the move to shift Goa to New Delhi Tribunal was “totally unnecessary”. He said already, the NGT’s functioning has been impaired because the government has not yet taken steps to fill posts that will fall vacant in the coming months, when some judges are expected to retire. A petition in the Delhi High Court has drawn attention to the government’s failure to fill up judicial and expert positions in the Tribunal. “It [the vacancies]has already affected the functioning of the NGT quite a bit,” he told Scroll.in. “In the last one year, benches have been changing every 15 days and the matters have to be reheard. One of our cases has been heard twice already and was going for a third hearing. This is delaying everything.”