The setting up the National Green Tribunal by the Parliament has created a history of sorts in India as a new court would try only environmental cases first time ever in the country.
The Green Tribunal is empowered to order the breakers of environmental laws to pay civil damages to any amount that it may finds fit to be compensated.
Previously only 25,000 rupee ($564) was the highest amount that was levied as liability for polluting the rivers or felling of the forests.
The government has appointed former Supreme Court judge Lakeshwar Singh who specialized in constitutional, labor, criminal and tax law to chair the tribunal.
The Delhi-based tribunal will have 10 judicial experts and 10 environmental experts that will lead four regional circuit courts and will travel throughout the country to hear civil cases.
"We have taken a giant step forward in having a Green Tribunal to take quick decisions on behalf of the people of India," Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said soon after the setting up of the tribunal.
The tribunal will not wait for the people to come but it will go out to the people, Ramesh said, adding India is only the third country in the world to set up a separate judiciary for environmental cases, after Australia and New Zealand.
India first tried to set up an environmental tribunal some14 years ago but could not give teeth to it due to lack of political will and undefined mandate. However, this time it’s different as the Green Tribunal has the sole authority in civil cases within its jurisdiction.
The Green tribunal in a sense puts more power in the people’s hand and as opposed to earlier practice where the litigant had to be connected with environmental work. Now anyone can file a lawsuit, against the breakers of environmental laws.
The big question is will the Green Tribunal help clearing a backlog of some 5,000 such cases languishing in the Indian courts. One case, filed in 1996 against illicit logging in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, is still pending in the Supreme Court.
Experts feel that the tribunal would definitely clear the backlogs as informed judges would be assisted by environmental experts to dispose the cases, even though its rulings may be appealed.
The debate on development versus conservation would be the biggest issue that the Tribunal may have to face. Some feel there is no conflict between environmental conservation and addressing the developmental concerns others have reservations and say this could be the most sticking point.
Skeptics feel the Green Tribunal needs some political will to make the environmental issues to be considered more seriously in the country.
Nonetheless, there is total unanimity in welcoming the formation of the Tribunal as this is a step forward towards environmental protection in India.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He ca be contacted at email@example.com