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MoEF gets stick for failing to respond to green tribunal notices

Nov 30, 2013 Soundaram Ramanathan
Down to Earth

No counsel appeared before NGT on behalf of environment ministry for a month-and-a half, leading to delays in a number of cases

Tamil Nadu: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) pulled up a joint secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests earlier this week while hearing a case challenging environment clearance to the proposed thermal plant of Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Limited (IL&FS) in Tamil Nadu. The reason for the bench expressing extreme displeasure with the officials was the ministry’s failure to respond to tribunal notices.

For the past one-and-half months, no counsel has appeared on behalf of the ministry before the tribunal in spite of several notices and orders seeking clarifications. The tribunal then ordered Surjit Singh, joint secretary of the ministry, to appear before it. The bench wanted to ascertain whether any petroleum, chemicals and petrochemicals investment (PCPIR) region exists near the proposed Cuddalore IL&FS thermal power plant, as claimed by the complainants. Singh said he deals only with the administrative matters of NGT and is not responsible for NGT cases.

The reply irked the tribunal bench. “In spite of issuing due notices from time to time, we are surprised to hear such reply from the joint secretary without any sense of regret on delays. We are shocked to see the conduct of joint secretary. Let the secretary, MoEF be present before the bench on Monday,” said Swatanter Kumar, chairperson of the NGT who is heading the bench.

The bench also expressed its displeasure for being forced to adjourn cases in the absence of any counsel representing MoEF. “How can you say it’s not your business to deal with NGT cases? Various divisions in your ministry are all your internal issue. Today, there are nearly 14 cases which are getting adjourned because of your ministry. We never imposed even the costs of delay. "Don’t you have any sense of regret?" asked Kumar.

Singh was firm that he deals only with administrative matters of NGT and that the secretary of MoEF was informed about this.

At this the judge reprimanded Singh and said: “The costs of delay will be recovered from you and your secretary’s salary.” Hearing this, Singh left the court saying he has filed the same explanation as affidavit.

On Friday, lawyers appeared on behalf of the ministry before the bench. The tribunal warned MoEF counsels of strict action in case the secretary fails to appear before it on December 2.

IL&FS thermal power plant case

The bench then proceeded with hearing the case. IL&FS, a private infrastructure development and finance company, obtained environmental clearance for its 3,600 MW super critical thermal power project in Cuddalore in 2010, which was challenged by the local communities who alleged that the ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) did not take into account the cumulative impact of projects in the area before clearing the power plant and that the power plant poses a major threat to mangroves in the area.

In May 2012, the NGT bench had ordered a rapid cumulative impact assessment (RCIA) study of the project and asked EAC to impose any additional conditions and reconsider the clearance based on the RCIA report. Based on the RCIA, the project was again cleared by the ministry. The aggrieved community filed an appeal against this clearance before NGT.

The applicants argued that the existence of PCPIR region near the power plant has not been taken into account during the RCIA study. IL&FS claims no such PCPIR region exists nearby. The court wanted a clarification on this and sought details from MoEF. The case was adjourned earlier in the absence of explanation from MoEF and the court imposed a fine of Rs 25,000.

On Friday, the counsels for MoEF said the ministry has no records on granting any clearances to the PCIPR region and that the ministry of fertilisers’ chemicals division would be in a better position to provide an answer.

The tribunal then issued notice to the Union ministry of fertilisers and the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation (TNIDC) to give clarification.

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