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Every once in a rare while, an Indian institution surprises and inspires you.

Last week, based on an order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) received the remaining 4.75 crore penalty imposed this March on the Art of Living Foundation. The NGT had imposed the fine on the foundation as environmental compensation for holding a World Cultural Festival on the eco-sensitive floodplains of the Yamuna river. The NGT had also imposed a modest fine on the DDA and on the Delhi Pollution Control Committee for not doing their job. My purpose here is not to investigate the merits of the case (Art of Living has said it will appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court), but to delve a little deeper into an Indian institution that appears out of nowhere and acts with conviction.

Had you heard of the NGT before? To many, it was a surprise to see a purposeful, time-bound organization that received a complaint, investigated it, debated and decided and then carried out its decision. What’s more, the decision was a US-style decision to permit Art of Living to continue with the event but impose an environmental penalty. Some would call that decision pleasantly pragmatic (in a country in which most institutions play dog in the manger). For some others, including Art of Living leader Sri Sri Ravishankar, that was a akin to “imposing a penalty for allowing a car to go through a green traffic light".

The NGT was established in 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act and is a specialized environmental court that deals with cases relating to environmental protection and the conservation of forests and that has judicial powers that allow it to exclusively decide civil environmental matters. The tribunal is guided by principles of natural justice and is not bound by the mainstream code of civil procedure. Orders can be appealed to the Supreme Court within 90 days. It is currently led by justice Swatanter Kumar, a former judge of the Supreme Court.

India is one of only a few countries to have a specialized environmental court system. The advantage of such a system is that it permits direct access to environmental justice, allows for more relevant and greater expertise, sets up alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and offers a path for the evolution of environmental jurisprudence. Disadvantages are that it possibly takes away from mainstream jurisdictions and transfers to and from the mainstream courts could become complicated. The recently passed bankruptcy code will likely follow a similar path in setting up its tribunals.

The NGT has made some remarkable decisions during the short time it has been in existence. Only last month, in a landmark judgement, the Kochi circuit bench of the NGT banned all diesel vehicles more than 10 years old from operating in six cities in Kerala (now indefinitely stayed by the Kerala high court). This follows a similar decision made for diesel cars in the Delhi region last year. It is expected to extend this to 15 major Indian cities with the worst air quality levels later this year. The NGT has also passed various prohibitory orders against sand mining in riverbeds that is being done without environmental clearance. It has imposed a no-construction zone of 75 metres around lakes and rajakaluves (stormwater drains) in Bengaluru.

Institutions that follow the due process of law in a free and fair way and make time-bound decisions are worth their weight in gold in any democratic system, particularly in India where delays, interference and corruption are the de facto standard. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their seminal book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty talk about how inclusive economic institutions—defined as those that encourage participation by the great mass of people that make the best use of their talents—foster economic activity, productivity and prosperity.

Perhaps it is time to add the NGT to India’s (relatively few) institutions that hold the public trust. That small but august block includes the Election Commission, the Union Public Service Commission, the Reserve Bank of India, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Indian Institutes of Technology, the National Payments Corp. of India, the Delhi Metro and the Supreme Court. We must learn lessons from the successes (or at the very least from the successful elements) of these institutions when we create new ones and reform old ones. This is especially difficult in a system prone to political interference, bureaucratic capture and non-specialized incompetence. Drivers of success include functional autonomy, strong leaders who are able to ensure an organizational culture of specialized competency and purpose, and a plural and tolerant society and the media.

Political and economic institutions that are trusted and perform well are the necessary foundation for a democratic society to grow and prosper. The more such institutions we create and nurture, the better our chances of creating a prosperous and fair society. The track record of the still young NGT suggests that effort can produce results, one institution at a time.

P.S.: “He who can listen to music in the midst of noise can achieve great things", said Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of India’s space programme.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com. To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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