Source: NGT website; Image only for representational purpose
The Supreme Court (SC) and High Courts (HC) often take up cases on their own volition, without any party approaching the Court. This is an exercise of their suo moto powers. The SC generally invokes its suo moto powers for cases related to human rights. Environmental issues, such as air pollution in Delhi and the remediation of polluted rivers have been taken up through this route.
Courts use suo moto powers when violations of constitutional rights are being inadequately addressed by the State authorities.
The use of suo moto powers, however, is criticised for allowing the courts to undertake ‘heroic interventions’ that often infringe upon the functions of the legislature and the executive. For instance, the SC’s COVID related orders effectively required the Union to draft a policy, and change their crisis management method.
The debate on the use of suo moto powers has now extended to tribunals. A tribunal is a quasi-judicial body: an administrative institution with partial judicial powers. They were set up to aid courts with speedy disposal of cases. Tribunals do not generally have suo moto powers. The National Green Tribunal however, has been passing orders by exercising these powers.
In October 2018, the NGT passed an order based on a news report, imposing a five crore fine on the Mumbai Municipal Corporation for improper waste management. Similarly, in March 2021, the NGT passed an order based on a letter written to the Chairman. The order increased the minimum distance of quarries from residential areas from 50 to 200 metres. These actions by the NGT were suo moto actions. These orders have now been challenged by a group of parties who have appealed to the SC. The Court will decide whether the NGT has the power to pass orders based on letters and news articles, and if it can exercise suo moto powers.
The appellants argue that there is no provision under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (the Act) that explicitly allows the NGT to exercise suo moto powers. The Act only allows the tribunal to hear all civil cases where there is a ‘substantial question relating to the environment’ (section 14); this provision does not grant NGT with suo moto powers.
The respondents however, argue that the broad powers vested in the NGT under ‘substantial questions’ reflect the purpose of forming the NGT. They argue that this purpose guides the ‘conscience of the Tribunal’. The jurisdiction of the NGT is based on a right to a healthy environment under the right to life. So, a procedural requirement such as a formal petition, must not overshadow the core purpose of the tribunal.
The appellants’ argument have some credence in that, where lawmakers have wanted to grant a tribunal suo moto powers, the relevant law has explicitly stated so. For instance, The Karnataka Land Reforms Act, 1961 explicitly mentions the limited suo moto powers of the Land Tribunal. So, if the Act is interpreted literally, the NGT does not have suo moto powers.
However, the NGT’s suo moto power can be seen as inherent to its function. The 186th Law Commission report stated that the power of ‘environmental courts’ to take up a matter must be read as broadly as possible. Anyone who is affected by an environmental issue or has a public interest must be able to approach these courts. A literal interpretation of the Act would hinder the NGT from serving its mandate to protect the environment.
If the Court considers the purpose of the Act, suo moto powers can be interpreted as vital to the NGT’s function. This could allow the NGT to play a more effective role in environmental protection. However, the need for suo moto powers itself reiterates the idea that a judicial body must ‘swoop in’ to protect constitutional values, if the legislature or the executive is ill equipped to perform their functions. The Tribunal would have a direct effect on the functioning of executive bodies, such as the Municipal Corporation in the present case. Unlike orders based on petitions, cases taken up suo moto would allow the tribunal itself to decide what issues it should consider and to what extent it can infringe on the executive’s domain.
This blog was authored by Gauri. She works at Supreme Court Observer(SCO).