Govt to now nominate all members of top panel on environment issues

ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi
Sep 07, 2023 04:58 AM IST

The Union environment ministry formed a permanent “Central Empowered Committee” on environmental issues in response to a Supreme Court order dates August 18

The union environment ministry has issued a notification constituting a permanent authority , a “Central Empowered Committee” in response to a Supreme Court order dated August 18 which said that instead of an ad hoc body, CEC should be instituted as a permanent statutory body on environmental issues.

The Union environment ministry issues a notification constituting a permanent “Central Empowered Committee” on environmental issues. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
The Union environment ministry issues a notification constituting a permanent “Central Empowered Committee” on environmental issues. (HT Archive)

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The permanent CEC now replaces an ad hoc body that SC directed to be created at the national level in 2002 for monitoring the implementation of the court’s orders related to forests, wildlife and conservation and to place instances of non-compliance before it.

Interestingly, the structure of the new CEC is vastly different from the previous CEC. It is far more centralised and has no independent members.

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The new CEC notified on September 5, will have a chairman with experience of 25 years in the field of environment, forests and wildlife or proven administrative experience of not less than 25 years in the central or state governments. The chairman will be nominated by the central government for a tenure of three years, which can be extended for at most one more tenure. The age limit for the chairman is 66 years and the level, not below the rank of additional secretary.

The member secretary of the new CEC will be a full-time serving officer of the government not below the rank of Deputy Inspector General of forests or director in the Government of India. This person is required to have special knowledge in the field of environment, forests or wildlife, and experience of at least 12 years. The member secretary too will be appointed by the Centre. The three expert members will be one each from the fields of the environment, forests and wildlife with experience of at least 20 years. They will be also be nominated by the Centre for a tenure of three years and can be extended maximum for one more tenure.

The notification also states that members of the Committee will be appointed in their personal capacity and the Committee shall function under the administrative control of the central government in the ministry of environment, forest and climate change with its headquarters at Delhi. The salaries, allowances payable to; and the other perks and terms and conditions of service of, the Chairperson and Members, shall be such as may be prescribed.

In contrast, the SC order of May 9, 2002 stated that the CEC would have a chairman nominated by the environment ministry in consultation with the Amicus Curiae; one nominee of the ministry; and two nominees NGOs (also to be nominated in consultation with the Amicus Curiae).

“The current notification brings about a significant change. It eliminates the presence of non-government members within the committee entirely. Under the revised structure, the chairman, member secretary, and all expert members will now be civil servants nominated by the environment ministry,” said Debadityo Sinha, Lead- Climate & Ecosystems, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

“Additionally, in clause 3 of the notification, instead of instituting a grievance redressal mechanism for cases where the state or central government may disagree with the recommendations of CEC, the central government retains the ultimate decision-making authority. This raises a critical concern, particularly given that a substantial number of environmental violation cases involve government actions. How can one expect the CEC to operate independently or issue adversarial rulings when it comprises solely civil servants appointed by the government?”

The grievance redressal clause in the notification issued on September 5 states: “In case any suggestion or recommendation of the Central Empowered Committee, not acceptable to the State or Central Government, the Government shall give reasons in writing for not accepting the same and such decision of the Central Government shall be final.”

“The main issue here is the independence of the Committee. If all are nominated from Centre, for litigant it would be very difficult to question their findings,” added Rahul Chaudhary, environmental lawyer.

"Historically one of the gaps in the institutional and legal frameworks of the forest governance has been its social dimension. The rights based discourse has partly covered this, but forests are still visualised as economic or ecological asset. Its social associations, meanings and attachments continue to be a missing link. The appointments to the proposed CEC which will have widely distributed and far-reaching powers could benefit from bridging this gap," said Kanchi Kohli, legal and policy researcher

HT reported on May 4 that the Union government agreed to formulate a draft law to replace the existing central empowered committee (CEC) — the expert panel assisting the Supreme Court in matters of forest and environment issues — after the top court gave the go ahead for the same.

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