In a setback to the ministry of environment and forests, currently headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Supreme Court on Friday rejected the government plea to wind down a committee tasked to monitor and ensure compliance of the court’s directions on matters related to forests and wildlife.
Instead, a three-judge bench of the apex court, headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, held that the central empowered committee would continue functioning under its aegis without any dilution in powers.
It did, however, state that if the ministry did manage to make a convincing representation, then the court would be willing to consider modification of powers and functions of the committee, appointed by the apex court and notified under the Environment Protection Act of 1986.
The ministry has consistently challenged the committee’s recommendations—the implementation of which has put brakes on several big ticket investments—on forest policy and regulation over the past few years. Almost all industrial projects in the country need a clearance from the environment ministry before setting up operations.
It had filed an affidavit on Thursday opposing the extension of the committee’s tenure, which was to expire on 18 September, on the grounds that the committee was never meant to be an agency under Section 3(3) of the environment Act.
The ministry also questioned the indefinite term of the committee members and sought exclusion of retired government officials, N.K. Joshi and P.V. Jaykrishnan, from the panel.
In response, the apex court asked the ministry’s counsel, Ghulam Vahanawati, to cite instances where the panel had committed infractions. The counsel instead argued that the committee had come to wield executive powers.
Senior counsel Harish Salve appearing as amicus curiae or an independent adviser appointed by the court, argued that the committee’s tenure be extended to complete the unfinished agenda.
Justice A. Pasayat agreed that the committee should continue, as it has helped the apex court function effectively “without a glitch” or aberration for the last five years.
The committee was constituted in 2002 following the apex court’s directive to a 1997 writ petition, where it found the “need to constitute a high-power committee to oversee the strict and faithful implementation” of its orders in environmental matters.
But throughout its five-year tenure, the committee has been at odds with the environment ministry. “It is a modern concept of governance to have a supervisory or regulatory body outside the system. Political and bureaucratic control is not used to it. Sometimes, good governance also boomerangs,” said a senior government official who did not wish to be identified.
Recently, in a spat between the ministry and the committee over the constitution of the forest advisory committee, the ministry had questioned the credentials of some committee members as well as the court’s jurisdiction. In response, the apex court had severely castigated the ministry’s counsel.
In another instance involving Vedanta Resources Plc.’s bauxite mines in Orissa, the committee had taken the ministry to task: “The casual approach, the lackadaisical manner and the haste with which the entire issue of forests and environmental clearance for the alumina refinery project has been dealt with, smacks of undue favour/leniency and does not inspire confidence with regard to the willingness and resolve of both the state government and the (ministry) to deal with such matters, keeping in view the ultimate goal of national and public interest.”
The ongoing conflict between the executive and the judiciary could be renewed if the ministry manages to successfully move a legislation that would wind up all committees notified under section 3(3) of the environment Act. The Environment Tribunal Bill instead, suggests that powers be delegated to the state-level environment impact assessment authorities and environmental disputes be addressed by one national and four regional level “green courts”.
Further, the committee is examining an affidavit challenging the legality of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, a marquee effort premised on a common agenda of the parties making up the United Progressive Alliance, that empowers tribals to access forest resources.
Representatives of the Congress party counselled a middle path. A Congress member of Parliament, who did not wish to be identified, said, “If we don’t conserve global environment, there won’t be a globe left. If we don’t go for industrialization, there won’t be a government left. So, we need both.”
(Malathi Nayak and Ashish Sharma contributed to this story.)