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Centre cannot expect all to know Hindi or English, environmental notifications should be issued in vernacular languages: Madras High Court

The Central government should respect vernacular languages of all States and it cannot expect everybody to know Hindi and English, the Madras High Court recently said.

Therefore, when it comes to notifications concerning activities that would have an impact on the environment, the Central Government cannot stick to communicating the same through English and Hindi alone. Such notifications should be issued in the vernacular language of the concerned State as well, lest its purpose would be defeated, the Court said.

The order passed by a Bench of Justices N Kirubakaran and B Pugalendhi last week stated:

“The Central Government cannot expect the people to know Hindi and English languages and it is expected of the Central Government to respect the languages of all the States and comply with the procedures. This Court expects the Central Government to issue all the notifications in the vernacular language of the States, which is the primary requirement, apart from Hindi and English languages. Otherwise, the very purpose of the notification will be lost. After all, languages are medium of communication for people. Languages spoken and used by people of every State is equal before law. No language is superior, and no language is inferior.”

The Court was dealing with a PIL petition challenging the Centre’s move to reduce the size of the Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary’s eco-sensitive zone from 0-10 kilometres to 0-3 kilometres, in relation to which a notification was issued in the official gazette in September 2020.

The petitioner’s grievance stemmed from the draft notification issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on February 21, this year. This notification invited the public objections within 60 days.

The petitioner questioned the validity of the notification and consequent actions on the ground that there was little scope for a public hearing in the matter, given the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown that followed shortly after the draft notification.

An additional ground raised was that the notification was issued only in Hindi and English, and not in the vernacular languages with which local people would be familiar.

The Bench also agreed with the concern raised by the petitioner’s counsel, Advocate P Puhazh Gandhi, on this count, orally observing:

When it is having a serious impact on the environment, you (Government) cannot stick on to English and Hindi.”

Adding that the environment is meant for the people, Justice Kirubakaran remarked further,

You can add Malayalam also (since Kerala is neighbouring State). But you cannot ignore local and vernacular languages. Otherwise, the very purpose of the notification will be lost.”

The Court also took note of the petitioner’s submission that the issuance of the notification in only English and Hindi languages would not be sufficient compliance of the MoEFCC’s own rule. In this regard, the petitioner had cited Rule 3 of a 2009 MoEFCC notification and an Official Memorandum the MoEFCC dated April 19, 2010.

This required that a notice of public hearing as well as the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Report be advertised in one major national daily and in one regional, vernacular daily in the official State language so that the local people may understand the importance of the notification and respond.

The Court, in this case, proceeded to stay the MoEFCC’s September notification after observing that:

Prima facie, it is clear that the notification is not made known to the local people, as required. It suffices to say that the local people are prevented from making any effective objection to the impugned notification. That apart, the present COVID-19 Virus has also made the issue very complex, as the people could not come out and give their objections.”

The Court also stalled any mining activities that may have commenced on account of the move to reduce the size of the sanctuary, remarking:

It is disheartening to note that our natural resources are being looted by adopting illegal means. If mining licences have been granted pursuant to the impugned notification, be it for a new mining spot or for re-opening already closed ones, it is made clear that there shall not be any mining operation in and around the Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary to an extent of 10 km, which is the pre-notification distance.”

The Bench issued the direction after it was told that mining operations around the wildlife sanctuary, which were earlier stalled/closed after the intervention of the Court, were re-opened and functioning freely. In this backdrop, the Court expressed concern over the larger environmental concerns, observing:

“Like animals, many foreign birds are migrating to various sanctuaries across the Country. Birds, animals and other creatures are having every right to live in the world. This universe is meant not only for the humans, but also for every other creature. Since this is a serious issue affecting our environment, the matter has to be dealt with very seriously.”

The Court has now asked the State through Special Government Pleader M Muthugeethaiyan, to submit details on the mining licences given in and around the Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary pursuant to the challenged notification. Assistant Solicitor General Victoria Gowri accepted notice on behalf of the Central government.

The matter will be taken up next on December 14.


Via Bar & Bench
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