SC approves new ‘permanent’ forest expert body

The Supreme Court on Friday permitted the Centre to form a permanent body of experts to be consulted on issues related to environment and forest cases, replacing the ad-hoc experts’ panel of the central empowered committee (CEC).

Supreme Court of India (Representative Photo)

The CEC assisted the Court with mining clearances, and permission for projects within forests, for the past 20 years.

“We permit the Union of India to proceed further with the issuance of the notification for the constitution of CEC as a permanent body,” said a bench of justices BR Gavai and PK Mishra giving its sanction on the draft notification prepared by the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEF&CC).

The Supreme Court noted that while the final notification is expected to be issued by the MoEF&CC by next week, the permanent CEC will have additional powers vis-a-vis its predecessor as not only will the body continue to assist the Court in environment-related matters, but even the Central government can also seek its recommendation on any issue.

A copy of the draft notification was presented to the Court by solicitor general (SG) Tushar Mehta. “If this draft meets with the Court’s approval, it can be published by the government,” Mehta said.

Those privy to the decision said that the new CEC will be a five-member body with a chairperson, with each of the members being an expert in the field of environment, forests and wildlife. The tenure of members will be for three years.

Allowing the Union government to proceed ahead with selecting the composition of the CEC, the bench said, “Rather than CEC working as an ad-hoc body, it is functioning as a permanent body will be in the interest of all stakeholders.”

The Court asked the solicitor general to share a copy of the draft notification with amicus curiae K Parameshwar who suggested having a periodic audit of performance for CEC.

The suggestion was readily accepted by the SG who said that the final notification will make the necessary change requiring the CEC to submit quarterly reports to the Centre and every two years, there shall be an audit by the MoEF&CC.

It was in May when the top court had expressed its desire to replace the 20-year-old ad-hoc CEC experts body, mostly aged between 70 to 80 years and could seldom meet to conduct crucial spot visits. The ad-hoc committee was constituted by a government notification of September 2002 under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

The order of May 18 recorded the Court’s suggestion and the Centre’s desirability to create a permanent and continuous body under the 1986 Act which would contain provisions related to the qualification of the members to be appointed, their tenure, their powers and responsibilities.

The working of CEC had earned the ire of the top court on March 24 in a case related to the construction of a convention centre at Patnitop in Jammu when CEC gave a recommendation contrary to an order passed by the Court. After the Court permitted the J&K tourism development corporation to build a new convention centre in place of an old, dilapidated building, the CEC report said that the same will impact the tree cover in the area.

In that order, the Court said that CEC is not an “appellate authority” to sit in judgment over the top court’s decisions. The Court had in its March 24 order said, “No doubt, the Committee has rendered yeoman service to the cause of environment. However, we are of the view that for effective functioning of the CEC, it is appropriate that some experts in the relevant fields who are relatively younger to the present incumbents, can contribute in a more energetic and efficient manner.”

This was the genesis for the Court to allow the Centre to frame a mechanism to institutionalise CEC. Even the amicus and SG pointed out that in the existing CEC, the views of dissenting members are not produced before the Court. The March order said that henceforth, even a dissenting opinion of any CEC member has to be placed along with the report before the Court.

This is the second such ad-hoc expert body assisting the Court that is getting a permanent form under the statute. Earlier, the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), an expert panel assisting the Supreme Court on matters of pollution relating to Delhi and the national capital region (NCR), was replaced in 2020 by the Commission for Air Quality Management in NCR and Adjoining areas.

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