If a circuit bench were to be set up in Goa – a discussion the state government wants to avoid – activists say there would be four times the number of cases that are currently before the Pune bench.
Panaji: Goa “has captured my heart,” Justice G.S. Patel of the Bombay high court told a packed courtroom in Panaji on Wednesday, as he signed off with a poetic flourish an order that struck down a central government notification that had transferred Goa’s environment related cases from Pune to Delhi.
The order was widely celebrated in Goa, which has scores of public-spirited petitions before the National Green Tribunal (NGT). But it was also a personal letdown for chief minister Manohar Parrikar who had admitted publicly that he had asked for the transfer of Goa cases from the jurisdiction of the NGT bench in Pune to the one in Delhi on the specious argument that Delhi had better flight connectivity than Pune. The Goa government already had a battery of lawyers placed in the capital too, Parrikar had said.
What’s interesting about the case is how the government found itself completely isolated and friendless in a move perceived as an unambiguous attempt to impede the cause of environmental litigation in Goa. The Bombay high court at Goa, which filed a suo motto plea in the matter, was among the 24-odd petitioners arraigned against the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the state government over the August 10 notification.
The government’s justification of “logistical inconvenience and hardship” in hearing NGT cases in Pune was met with ridicule. “If there is one thing that neither the state government nor the MOEF did at any stage, it was to listen to the voice of those who most need the protection of environmental laws,” the Panaji bench of Justices Patel and Nutan Sardessai said.
Goa (and four union territories), Maharashtra and Gujarat had been assigned to the NGT Western Zone. But Goa alone had been cherry-picked and singled out for “preferential treatment” and transferred to a tribunal 2,000 km away in Delhi, lawyers representing the clutch of litigants, some of them fisher people and green activists, argued.
“It strikes us as utterly extraordinary that any government should, in the guise of its own inconvenience or convenience, seek to shift a tribunal several thousand kilometres away and then claim that this is for the greater public good. Indeed it is not,” said Justice Patel, emphasising that “access to justice” was also a facet of Article 21. “Our duty and that of every government too, must be to ensure that these attempts to protect the environment can be brought to a forum that is close at hand, where environmental issues can be addressed quickly, without having to travel inordinate distances, and at a cost that the poorest in the land, not just the well-heeled, can afford. These are, after all, struggles for a better tomorrow,” said the court.
If the NGT in Pune has so many cases from Goa, it was not because the people of Goa are “litigious” but “because they perceive that there is something of value here to protect, Justice Patel said. “This is an extraordinary state, in more ways than one, a place where, perhaps more than anywhere else, sky, sea and earth meet. From horizon to horizon, it is a land of abundant richness. It is a land of confluences, where diverse strands meet and co-exist; and, in a time of apparently incessant strife and discord, it is still a mostly liberal land. It is a kind and gentle land, of a kind and gentle people,” the court’s extraordinary prose read.
What was unique about the case, said Claude Alvares, director of Goa Foundation, one of the principle petitioners in the case, was that it brought together a wide array of groups in Goa to battle a decision that was “so obviously wrong” and meant to make things difficult for ordinary people fighting for the most basic of environment causes such as the protection of turtle nesting sites, destruction of rivers and mangroves and noise pollution, among others.
If a circuit bench were to be set up in Goa – a discussion the Goa government seems more keen than ever to avoid – there would be four times the number of cases that are currently before the Pune bench, Alvares believes.
Enormous “development” projects and sweeping changes unleashed in the state have brought the government often into confrontation with greens and other activists. Environment laws shaped through legislation are often most ignored and abused by the government itself. And Goa knows this too well. As the court pointed out Wednesday, with a population of only 14 lakh, 146 cases from Goa are currently before the Pune NGT. Maharashtra and Gujarat, with a combined population of 19 crore, have only 340 cases in comparison.
Still in defiant mode, Parrikar told the media the state would move the Supreme Court to challenge the high court order. “Pune is a headache for us. Our lawyers are in Delhi, and Delhi is good for us,” he said. The fight for access to justice is far from over.