Home / Politics / Policy /  Environment ministry to hire private firms to speed up cases

The environment ministry, which is stuck in around 2,000 court cases across the country, plans to hire private law firms to represent it in court cases because the government doesn’t have enough legal officers.

The ministry may hire three to four law firms, after being reprimanded by some judges for lack of legal representation at some hearings, said a ministry official who did not want to be identified.

“Some of the pending cases are nearly two decades old. But due to such cases, the ministry is increasingly dependent on the nod from courts for taking policy decisions," the official added.

The ministry also recently hired law firm Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A. Shroff and Co. to help prepare amendments to six green laws, according to the ministry official.

The official said that the cases are in various courts—the Supreme Court, high courts, the National Green Tribunal and others—and some have policy implications.

For instance, a case over compensatory afforestation (the planting of green cover to replace forest land diverted for other purposes) has been stuck in the apex court for several years, due to which nearly 38,000 crore that was to be distributed to state governments is yet to be allocated. The government has introduced a bill on a proposed compensatory afforestation fund.

Similarly, a case on the definition of forests and formation of an environmental regulator is also pending with the apex court.

In the run up to the 2014 general election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had vowed to ease the process of granting environmental clearances. Modi’s principal secretary Nripendra Misra has also written to attorney general Mukul Rohatgi to help accelerate environment-related cases that are stuck in the courts and are stalling government initiatives.

“As you are aware, the government is striving to expedite the process of development in the country while simultaneously ensuring environmental conservation and enrichment. In this regard, it has been seen that several important initiatives are getting derailed or severely delayed as some related matters are pending before the courts. It is necessary to resolve these matters," Misra wrote in a letter dated 31 October 2014. Mint has reviewed a copy of the letter.

The matter has been discussed in the environment ministry, too. The most recent meeting was on 20 July, when senior officials of the ministry led by secretary Ashok Lavasa took stock of the issue.

In the meeting, Lavasa sought details of the pending court cases and the status of committees constituted as a result of directives by various courts.

The minutes of the meeting, accessed by Mint, showed that Lavasa had issued direction for “empanelment of 3-4 firms as legal consultant" to the environment ministry.

“The issue of non-representation of ministry during hearings in courts is also being taken strictly. The progress is being closely monitored in ministry at the highest level," said the environment ministry official cited earlier.

The decision was taken after the environment ministry, led by Prakash Javadekar, came under criticism from the parliamentary standing committee on environment and forests for a report prepared by the high-level committee led by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian.

The report was deemed to be a hurried job without consultations with all stakeholders by both the parliamentary panel and civil society organizations.

The panel was formed in August last year to review and suggest amendments to the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, and Indian Forest Act, 1927.

“It is a good step as ministry’s cases will get streamlined... But environment ministry actually needs to improve its working and not take those decisions which are against environment and would end up in courts," said environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta.

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