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NGT on waste management: Rs 79,000 cr fines but courts not a ‘substitute for governance’

All the penalties were levied in connection with a single case that wrapped up today.

Over the last few months, we’ve seen several headlines screaming about mind-boggling fines levied by the National Green Tribunal.

“NGT slaps penalty of 12,000 crores on Maharashtra,” said one. “NGT fines Telangana Rs 3,800 cr,” gasped another.

In total, the NGT imposed penalties of Rs 79,234.36 crore on 35 states and union territories – an amount higher than Delhi’s 2022-23 budget of Rs 78,800 crore.

All these fines have been levied in connection with a single case on solid and liquid waste management violations, proceedings for which ended today.

“Our conclusion is that enacting laws and directions of courts/tribunals are not a substitute for good governance,” said the NGT’s principal bench, led by chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel. “Unless the administration accords high priority of the subject, undesirable situation as found may not be remedied.”

The case began in 2018, when the tribunal took suo motu cognisance of environmental violations by various state governments. This was in accordance with two Supreme Court orders in 2014 and 2017 on monitoring compliance with solid and liquid waste management norms. Over the years, all the chief secretaries from the respective states and UTs appeared before the NGT.

Penalties were imposed because the states and UTs could not remove mounds of garbage, meet waste processing targets, set up enough sewage treatment plants, or stop the discharge of sewage into already polluted rivers.

The NGT today also provided a complete rundown of all the penalties paid by states and UTs since last year. Tamil Nadu faced the highest penalty of Rs 15,419.71 crore, followed by Maharashtra with Rs 12,000 crore and Madhya Pradesh with Rs 9,688 crore. Nine other states and UTs were slapped with penalties of over Rs 2,000 crore each. For Delhi, it was Rs 3,132 crore.

Not a single state complied with the NGT’s waste regulations. Only two UTs did: Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Daman and Diu.

The court has, in various orders, directed the governments to deposit penalties in a ring-fenced account under the supervision of chief secretaries. In all cases, governments are violators.

While concluding the proceedings, the tribunal directed the chief secretaries of all states and UTs to “file further progress reports every six months”. The NGT emphasised the need for “strict monitoring” as well as the constitution of “specialised monitoring cells fixing accountability for deviation from laid down timelines” by state and central governments.

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