Vizag gas leak: Failure to exercise suo moto jurisdiction would render victims without remedy, says NGT

The Bench headed by Chairman Justice AK Goel said that if NGT was powerless to institute suo motu proceedings and was to act only when victims approached the forum, it would be robbed of its efficacy

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

NH Web Desk

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Wednesday held that South Korean company LG Polymers has strict and absolute liability for environmental damage and loss of life consequent to the Visakhapatnam Gas Leak that took place on May 7, legal news website has reported.

In an order passed earlier, the NGT had directed the company to deposit a sum of Rs 50 crore before the District Magistrate of Visakhapatman as initial payment. Now, the court, while fixing absolute and strict liability on the company, held that this amount would be used towards restoration of the environment and compensation to the victims.

"We find the Company has strict and absolute liability for the environmental damage and consequential loss including to life and public health in this case," said the NGT.

One of the issues considered by the Tribunal was a challenge to its earlier order in the suo motu proceedings where deposit of money was directed. Rejecting the contention and establishing its power to take suo motu cognizance, the NGT said that it is a specialized Tribunal and is empowered to take suo motu cognizance of environmental mishaps, and pass orders effectively.

"NGT has the purpose and power to provide relief and compensation to victims of environment damage, restitution of property, and restoration of environment. To effectuate this purpose, NGT has wide powers to devise its own procedure. In appropriate circumstances, this power includes the power to institute suo motu proceedings and not keep its hands tied in the face of drastic environmental damage and serious violation of right to life, public health and damage to property," the NGT said.

The Tribunal also said that these wide powers are even more pertinent when the victims of such environmental tragedies are those belonging to the marginalised sections. In such cases, it would not only be the power of the Tribunal, but also its duty to exercise such power for effective remedy.

"Failure to exercise suo motu jurisdiction in such circumstances would render these victims without remedy, causing irretrievable injustice and breakdown of Rule of Law," the Tribunal said.

Further emphasizing on its role in cases such as the Vizag gas leak, the Bench headed by Chairman Justice AK Goel said that if the NGT was powerless to institute suo motu proceedings and was to act only when victims approached the forum, it would be robbed of its efficacy. The Court arrived at this conclusion on the basis of the provisions and scheme of the NGT Act.

"If this Tribunal is prevented from instituting suo-motu proceedings, these issues and violations would remain unaddressed, citizens’ inalienable right to life and other rights will stand jeopardized, and the serious and irreversible environment damage would continue unchecked," the NGT said.

On the issue of the pending proceedings in relation to the gas leak case before other fora, the NGT said that there is no conflict as the scope of the proceedings do not overlap. The order passed by the NGT is not in the teeth of orders passed by any other fora, nor are the findings of various committees constituted to probe the incident, the order states.

The Tribunal further added that on the issue of the incident itself, the liability of the company stands established after placing reliance on the report submitted by the committee that was constituted to probe the incident of May 7.

Therefore, the Tribunal directed for the initial amount of Rs 50 crores to be used towards compensation for victims and restoration of environment. It added that a restoration plan shall be evolved by a committee comprising two representatives each of the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), and three representatives of the government of Andhra Pradesh.

The NGT directed for this plan to be prepared within a period of two months. Based on the assessment made and the restoration plan prepared, a final amount of compensation will be quantified.

Additionally, the Tribunal said that the Chief Secretary of the state may identify and take appropriate action against those persons who are responsible for failure of law in permitting the company to operate without requisite statutory clearances. This would be done within two months and a report on the same to be placed before the Tribunal.

As regards possibility of recommencing operations of the company, the Tribunal said, "...if any such statutory clearances are granted and the Company proposes to recommence, this aspect must be brought to the notice of this Tribunal so that compliance of law is ensured."

Earlier in May, days after the NGT took cognizance of the incident and directed LG Polymers to pay an initial amount towards compensation, the company had approached the Supreme Court over the issue of multitude of committees proving the incident. The apex court had directed the company to return before the NGT on the grounds that the Tribunal was already seized of the matter.

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