Polluters beware: India has created a tribunal to punish those who sully the forests or rivers or otherwise break its environmental laws _ in the hopes of clearing a backlog of some 5,000 such cases languishing in a sluggish court system.
India's judicial system is marred by crammed dockets, rampant corruption and a lack of transparency, but Tuesday's announcement makes it only the third country to set up a separate judiciary for environmental cases, after Australia and New Zealand, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said.
"We have taken a giant step forward in having a tribunal to take quick decisions on behalf of the people of India," Ramesh said.
Once up and running, the National Green Tribunal can order polluters to pay civil damages in any amount instead of the previous 25,000 rupee ($564) liability.
Experts said the tribunal would ensure informed judges were deciding environmental cases.
"I don't believe there is any inherent conflict between environmental conservation and protecting community interest," said Prodipto Ghosh, an official with The Energy Research Institute. But "environment- and forest-related cases often require some special disciplinary knowledge, which the general judiciary doesn't have."
One case, filed in 1996 against illicit logging in the northeast state of Arunachal Pradesh, is still pending in the Supreme Court as the parties debate development versus conservation.
"If you look at the case, many of the rulings are inconsistent, there have been a large number of interventions, and none of it has really helped forest conservation," Ghosh said. By streamlining judicial recourse, "the tribunal in a sense puts more power in the people's hand."
This is not the first time India tried to set up an environmental tribunal. An effort started 14 years ago went nowhere because of a lack of political will and undefined mandate.
This time, however, parliament has passed laws clearing the Green Tribunal as the sole authority in civil cases within its jurisdiction, though its rulings may be appealed. Anyone can file a lawsuit, whereas previously the litigant had to be connected with environmental work.
"This could be a step forward, but environmental protection is never just a litigative process," said Sanjiv Gopal, a Greenpeace campaigner on oceans and climate. "There definitely needs to be some political capital on taking environmental issues far more seriously in this country."
Gopal cautioned, however, that the tribunal should not be "restricted to ex-bureaucrats who pander to one school of thought."
The government has appointed former Supreme Court judge Lakeshwar Singh Patna _ who specialized in constitutional, labor, criminal and tax law _ to chair the tribunal. He will staff the tribunal with 10 judicial experts and 10 environmental experts.
The Delhi-based tribunal will lead four regional circuit courts that will travel throughout India to hear civil cases.
"But they will not wait for the people to come to them. They will go out to the people," Ramesh said.