By LE Desk

New Delhi, June 29, 2021: The Supreme Court has remarked that the ministry of environment should also act like a “ministry for environment”, bemoaning that environmental standards have been constantly diluted in the recent past.

“You must show it is a ministry for environment and not just ‘of environment’. You (ministry) have been constantly diluting the environmental standards. That’s all that has been happening,” commented a bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud while hearing an appeal by the central government against an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2019, reported the Hindustan Times.

NGT had found faults with the ministry’s 2017 notification by which new norms for effluent discharge by sewage treatment plants (STPs) in waterbodies were laid down. It held that the new notification would lead to deterioration of the water quality and prescribed stricter standards based on the recommendations of an expert committee.

While the expert committee had suggested a timeframe of seven years for existing STPs to switch to higher sewage treatment criteria, the tribunal directed that the existing STPs should apply these norms “without any delay”. The NGT had further held that standards recommended for mega and metropolitan cities will also apply to the rest of the country.

The Union government challenged this order before the Supreme Court and asked for an immediate stay on the NGT judgment too.

When the matter was taken up by the court on Monday, the bench, which also included justices R Subhas Reddy and S Ravindra Bhat, questioned the imminent need for a stay of the tribunal’s judgment.

“What is the stay that you are seeking for? Should there be greater pollution? What is the harm in keeping the pollution low? Tribunal’s order has only ensured there is lesser pollution going into the water,” the bench asked additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati, who appeared for the Centre, the Hindustan Times reported.

Bhati, on her part, tried to show that the NGT did not even accept the recommendations of its own committee while directing that STPs should immediately upgrade and conform to the stricter standards on effluent discharge. She pointed out that upgradation was a time-taking exercise and that the 2017 notification was issued by the ministry after due deliberation.

“No. We will not stay the order. You should also protect the environment,” retorted the bench, saying it was only issuing notices to the petitioners before the NGT and the central pollution control board at this juncture.

The court also tagged the Centre’s appeal with the appeal filed by the municipal corporation of greater Mumbai against the same order of the NGT.

Some of the recent alterations by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) to environmental norms have been criticised by environmentalists while some of them have been challenged in court.

In March, the Supreme Court had agreed to scrutinise the Centre’s 2013 notification that exempted environmental clearance for road expansion projects involving national highways which are less than 100 kilometres long. It also sought to know why MoEFCC was yet to appoint an independent regulator to grant environmental clearances despite the court’s directives in 2011 and 2014. The issue had come up when the court heard a plea against a West Bengal government’s decision to construct five rail overbridges at the cost of chopping 356 trees.

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