The Kochi Municipal Corporation, under fire for the Brahmapuram waste-plant blaze that raged for 12 days, is in a fix after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered it to pay a fine of ₹100 crore.
Responding, the corporation termed the fine impractical.
The NGT penalised the corporation for its failure in handling solid waste, which caught fire, causing damage to the environment.
On 7 March, the High Court of Kerala observed that the fire had put Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, in a gas chamber-like situation.
The green tribunal also observed that the state of Kerala and the authorities concerned had been an “utter failure” and “rampantly violated the solid waste management rules”.
Threat to rule of law
The attitude of the authorities in not fixing accountability for environmental violations was “a threat to the rule of law”, it noted on Friday, 17 March.
The NGT was hearing about the blaze on which it initiated a suo motu case based on media reports on the environmental emergency the fire had caused.
“We are conscious that an identical issue is being dealt with by the Kerala High Court, but we make it clear that this order is without prejudice and subject to the said proceedings,” an NGT bench headed by its Chairperson Justice AK Goel observed.
“We are also informed of an identical issue pending before the South Zone bench of the tribunal and it may, accordingly, take into account this order before proceeding further,” the bench said.
The bench said the NGT considered the issue since the matter was being dealt with by the tribunal’s principal bench for nine years, based on a Supreme Court order dated 2 September, 2014.
Besides Justice Goel, the bench also comprised judicial member Justice Sudhir Agarwal and expert member A Senthil Vel.
Kerala failed miserably
It said Kerala and its authorities have been an “utter failure and rampantly violated the statutory solid waste management rules and orders of the Supreme Court and the tribunal”.
The bench said except for declaring future plans, the state neither fixed responsibility for the fire nor initiated proceedings against those guilty of criminal offences under the Environment (Protection) Act and the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
“Such attitude of state authorities is a threat to the rule of law. We hope that the situation is remedied at the higher level in the state, such as the director general of police (DGP) and the chief secretary, to uphold the Constitution and the mandate of environmental law,” it said.
Considering the monetary liability for the damage to the environment caused by the failure in complying with solid waste management norms and the “long-continuing neglect of its duties by the Kochi Municipal Corporation”, the green panel directed the corporation to pay an environmental compensation of ₹100 crore.
The tribunal directed the civic body to deposit the amount with the chief secretary within a month for initiating necessary remedial measures, including dealing with public health issues.
“Apart from the above, we direct the chief secretary, Kerala, to fix accountability on the officers concerned for such gross failures and initiate action under criminal law as well as by way of departmental proceedings, following due process, and place the same in the public domain within two months,” the tribunal said
Fine impractical: Kochi Mayor
Speaking to Manorama News, the Kochi Corporation mayor said the tribunal had not heard the issue in detail.
“I was hoping that the NGT will hear our response, but last night an order came charging us with a fine of ₹100 crore. It is impractical for us to deposit ₹100 crore at this moment. We will consult legal experts,” Mayor M Anilkumar said.
The mayor of the LDF-ruled corporation blamed the previous dispensations for the persisting problems.
He said he has been speaking about the lapses since 2012 and the violation of municipal solid waste management rules has been ignored since 2010. He held it as the primary reason for the current crisis.
Anilkumar said the NGT order vindicated his arguments on this issue.
He also said the course correction methods recommended by NGT will be strictly followed.
Anilkumar did not answer South First‘s queries, saying he would respond at a news conference scheduled for Saturday evening. Corporation secretary Shibu VP did not attend to phone calls.
Congress opposes using public money for paying fine
Meanwhile, Minister for Local Self-Government MB Rajesh told reporters that the government was taking the NGT order seriously.
Accusing the previous UDF-led administrations of the corporation, the minister said a two-phased programme from 13 March to 31 December would ensure a waste-free Kerala.
On Wednesday, 15 March, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced a three-tier probe by different agencies into the fire.
Responding to the NGT’s order, Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly VD Satheesan said public money cannot be used to pay the fine.
“The government has totally failed. We will not allow public money to be used for paying the fine. Those responsible for the crisis will have to pay it,” he told reporters.
Satheesan also called the crisis a “cruel act” and said large quantities of plastic were burned which emitted toxic fumes such as dioxins that could cause severe health issues.
“Even now the government is trying to help the contractors who lit the fire. Until now, the police have not even filed a preliminary report,” he said
Satheesan also alleged that the chief minister is trying to save those associated with the CPI(M) involved in this issue.
(With PTI inputs)