The Supreme Court recently stayed NGT's order of imposing a penalty of approximately 15 lakhs on Moon Beverages Limited ("MBL"), bottling unit of Coca Cola, guilty of exploiting groundwater for bottling plants in Uttar Pradesh.
The bench of Justices LN Rao, BR Gavai and AS Bopanna in their order said,
"There shall be stay of operation of the impugned judgment and order dated 25.02.2022 passed by the National Green Tribunal, Principal Bench, New in Original Application No.69 of 2020."
Before the NGT, the respondent Sushil Bhatt had preferred a complaint against Moon Beverages Limited alleging that they had not obtained any 'No Objection Certificate' from Central Ground Water Authority for extraction of ground though their units were situated in notified "over- exploited" areas where abstraction of groundwater could not be permitted.
It was further contended that MBL was abstracting groundwater illegally and that too without any NOC from CGWA, hence liable for payment of compensation in accordance with the guidelines issued by Authorities concerned. Bhatt further argued that in collusion with Authorities, MBL had not been saddled with any such liability and was continuing with such illegal acts.
The NGT's Bench of Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel (Chairperson), Sudhir Agarwal and Brijesh Sethi (judicial members), and Prof A. Senthil Vel and Dr. Afroz Ahmad (expert members) ruled that the bottling plants were working in violation of the environment law of CGWA (Central Ground Water Authority) as they were functioning without the required NOC (No Objection Certificate) to extract the groundwater.
While imposing the penalty, NGT found the companies guilty of breaking one of the terms of their licenses as they failed to meet their requirements to recharge groundwater.
Significantly, holding that PPs [Project Proponents] will have to pay environmental compensation for the abstraction of groundwater after the expiry of NOCs and failing to recharge groundwater as per the condition of NOCs, the Tribunal remarked thus:
"We are of the view that PPs are responsible for illegal extraction of groundwater at least after the expiry of NOCs, issued to them by CGWA. They continued to extract groundwater without any authority. Further, they are also liable to pay environmental compensation for causing loss to the environment by failing to comply with the most crucial condition of NOCs, i.e., recharge of water. In the Guidelines itself, extraction of groundwater was co-related with recharge. PPs could not have ignored to comply with the aforesaid condition of recharge. Having committed the said default, they are liable to pay environmental compensation for the said cause/loss, besides other legal action civil, criminal as the case may be."
The Tribunal also remarked that Uttar Pradesh Ground Water Department (UPGWD) had attempted to confer a valid authority upon PPs to justify continued extraction of groundwater, though neither they had any such jurisdiction, nor had undertaken any inquiry/investigation as to whether PP complied with earlier conditions of NOC.
Therefore, the Tribunal concluded that UPGWD also contributed and are responsible for causing damage to the environment in causing illegal abstraction of groundwater for which it may be held accountable.
Moon Beverages Limited before the Top Court were represented by Mr. Pinaki Misra, Sr. Advocate along with a team from *Karanjawala & Co.* Advocates led by Ms. Ruby Singh Ahuja, Senior Partner, along with Ms. Aakriti Vohra, Mr. Ashutosh P. Shukla, and Mr. Jappanpreet Hora.
Case Title: Moon Beverages Limited & Anr v Sushil Bhatt and Ors| Civil Appeal No 2901/2022