‘Master of disposal’ or ‘committee raj’?: A look at Goel’s NGT tenure

Of the total 16,042 cases cleared by the tribunal during Justice Goel’s tenure, over 8,000 were disposed of by a bench led by him.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
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‘Orders of significance’

In a press release, the NGT shared its “orders of significance” in the last five years. One of the most important cases where Justice Goel was proactive was related to solid waste management. In this case, the NGT had held three rounds of interactions with chief secretaries of all states and union territories. For monitoring gaps, it levied a compensation of Rs 79,234.36 crore on the states and UTs. States file status reports on the progress from time to time.

Asked if compensation from the government instead of penalising officials would work as a deterrent, Justice Goel told the media, “Not 100 percent. But there is no other option. How do you identify violators?” 

Justice Goel listed three key environmental challenges for the country: solid waste; industrial safety and carrying capacity assessment.  

In addition, the tribunal has been monitoring some important issues such as rejuvenation of the Yamuna and Ganga. The tribunal has also taken suo motu cognisance of industrial waste, 351 most polluted rivers and 134 most toxic cities, among others.

The NGT has penalised violators on the basis of polluters’ pay principle relying on a formula devised by the Central Pollution Control Board.

Row over special benches

The NGT presser listed another “special initiative” of the former Supreme Court judge: formation of special benches for quick disposal of cases pending for more than five years. To realise this feat, the chairperson would decide which cases would be heard in the joint sitting of the principal bench led by him and the zonal bench concerned. The NGT has a total of five benches.

Newslaundry had earlier analysed how almost all cases heard by these special benches were cleared in a single sitting. Subsequently, the Supreme Court had warned the NGT of contempt for continuously hearing cases under this arrangement.

It was not only old cases that the special bench took up. Last year, an appeal against the controversial Nicobar integrated project, which was filed with the eastern bench, was taken up by a special bench. The appeal was disposed of with the tribunal forming a committee of government officials to look into the matter.

When asked about the Supreme Court’s adverse observation on special benches, Justice Goel said a bench was formed “if one or two members from the zonal bench are not able to take a decision” or a zonal bench was not functional.

When prodded further if the arrangement could be seen as an encroachment on powers of zonal benches, he said, “Everybody is entitled to their opinion. I have nothing to add…it’s an irrelevant question.”

The ‘good outcomes’ before

Before coming to the NGT, Justice Goel hit the headlines for “diluting” the SC/ST Act as a Supreme Court judge. One of his first decisions as the NGT chief was to rehear 18 key cases which were already heard and reserved for judgments by different benches. Later, he called “50 percent” of NGT lawyers “blackmailers”.

“He is the master of disposal,” Supreme Court lawyer Sudiep Shrivastava said. 

Panjwani said, “In his personal conduct in the court, he was occasionally brusque, particularly when a party or an advocate made submissions which were beyond pleadings or legal position in law.”  

Remembering the “good outcomes” under Goel’s predecessor Swantantra Kumar, environmentalist Vikrant Tongad said the NGT “could have done better”. “Now, nobody takes it seriously.”      

Sheo Kumar Singh, who was earlier with the Bhopal bench of NGT,  has been appointed as the tribunal’s acting chairperson. He was part of the principal bench on Thursday that heard two cases, along with Goel and two other members. 

Meanwhile, on post-retirement, Goel told Newslaundry: “I will take up whatever life throws at me.”

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