Centre’s plan to merge tribunals sees progress

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New Delhi: The Centre’s plan to reduce the number of tribunals has seen some progress. The latest development is the decision to merge the existing inter-state river water dispute tribunals into one permanent body to adjudicate all such issues.

“There will be only one permanent tribunal with retired Supreme Court judge as its chairperson. There will be benches formed as and when required. The benches though will be wound up once a dispute is resolved,” said Shashi Shekhar, secretary for the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, according to PTI.

The government’s decision to merge water dispute tribunals, which received cabinet clearance earlier this month, was first reported by The Indian Express. B.S. Chauhan, Law Commission chief and former head of the Cauvery river water tribunal, said that a retirement age for the chairperson was needed. “While I haven’t seen the government scheme, it is a good decision (to make one permanent tribunal), but there has to be a retirement age for the chairperson. The age can be 70, 72, whatever government thinks best. As of now there is no retirement age for these inter-state water dispute tribunals.”

The government has attempted to reduce the existing numbers of tribunals. The government set up an inter-ministerial group under law secretary Suresh Chandra in February to discuss and assess reducing the number of tribunals from 36 to 18.

On 7 December, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha, minister of state for law P.P. Chaudhary said that the inter-ministerial group had recommended a three-stage action plan for reducing or converging tribunals—in the first phase, 23 tribunals are likely to be merged into six; seven to three in the second phase; and in third phase, possible options for seven other tribunals could be finalized.

Towards this end, the National Company Law Tribunal and its appellate body have subsumed within them, as of now, the board for industrial and financial reconstruction, its appellate authority and the company law board. Chaudhary added that the Appellate Tribunal for Prevention of Money Laundering and Appellate Tribunal for Forfeited Property (NDPS) were converged into the Smugglers and Foreign Exchange Manipulators (Forfeiture of Properties) Act tribunal through the Finance Act, 2016. The cyber appellate tribunal is also likely to be merged with the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal, PTI reported, quoting sources.

“If you have fewer appellate tribunals, you can make use of resources more efficiently. You don’t have to wait for 30 judges to retire to appoint them all. You can have 10 judges, appoint them to the relevant places and you’re set for the next 3-5 years,” said Alok Prasanna Kumar, lawyer and visiting fellow at think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.