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Indian Government Asks the Supreme Court to Keep Off Environmental Issues

Envirohealth? What is it, seems to ask the government of India. Clearly positing development against environment, it has asked Supreme Court to wind up the so-called Green Bench that sits over environmental issues.

Seeking the vacation of stay on the functioning of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), constituted under the Forest Conservation Act, the federal government bluntly asked the court to wind up its Green Bench on the ground that it has outlived its utility and is only hurting the objective of preservation of forests.

The three-judge Green Bench (also called Forest Bench), a significant innovation and traditionally headed by the Chief Justice of India (CJI), has passed several landmark judgments, orders and directions for the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act in the last 12 years.

But arguing the Green Bench has been overstepping stepping its boundaries, making governance that much more difficult, the federal ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has asked that it be left alone in preserving the environment.

More often than not, the court has been guided by uninformed activists, it has said in a polemical outburst, couched in surprisingly strong language.

It is indeed an ironical turn of events. While the apex court has been criticized for ignoring the plight of the marginalized, the coalition, headed by that mild-mannered academic-turned-politician Manmohan Singh, is considered one of the weakest in recent history, giving in, as it does, to all kinds of pressures on a whole host of fronts.

But the current drama could make government seem a no-nonsense-executive, determined to have its way, while the court would be seen as the protector of the tribals.

In the affidavit, overflowing with anger, the government says the Green Bench of the apex court has delivered judgments that have only contributed to accentuating poverty, social unrest and a spurt in Naxalit e activities in some states.

Naxalites are a Communist fringe group that has taken to arms to fight the state and central governments in some parts of the country.

Evidently the MoEEF is miffed that the court would not agree to its choice of experts to the FAC.

The court-appointed amicus curiae Harish Salve wants inclusion of independent experts like Belinda Wrights and Bittoo Sehgal in the FAC, but the ministry is stalling.

It is such reputed authorities who are being rubbished by the MoEF as lay persons who have no business to tell it what it should do and what it should not.

Any activity which requires the diversion of forest land for non-forest use must first be cleared by the MoEF. This is clearly specified in the procedures prescribed in the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

But then this process also stipulates a role for the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) before the grant of clearance. The MoEF refers every proposal with complete documentation to the FAC, and the committee then takes a view on certain parameters.

Given that forest lands are diverted for all kinds of industrial use these days, provoking clashes with those living on forest produce, one can perhaps understand the frustration of the mandarins while dealing with experts who have axe to grind, it is pointed out.

In fact the growing Naxalism in certain forest tracts is often directed against the disenfranchisement of forest-dependent population by overbearing forest officials, critics say.

But the ministry seems convinced to think the problem lies elsewhere, with the messengers that is.

The MoEF bristled, "advocates, who are experts in law not in forestry, and social activists, who may espouse social causes without any background of scientific issues that may have given rise to that issue, have tried to influence hearings in the cases through submissions on aspects which are in the domain of forestry science."

Such a situation may not only lead to errors of judgment but also result in accentuating poverty and social unrest, it said.

The Bench, set up to prevent the depletion of forest wealth, has served its purpose. The country has been witnessing a general uptrend in forest cover in the recent decades, which is remarkable. But for active government intervention, the forest resources could have declined very fast.

The various high-power committees set up by the court from time to time interfered with the executive functions of the Government, the application said the Bench should be wound up and all executive functions should be carried out by the Central and State Forest Departments.

Often these committees had neglected, even purposely denigrated, the efforts of the State and Central Governments at conservation and development of forests, thereby misleading the court.

If these weaknesses/fallacies are allowed to prevail, they might lead the forests to a situation of extreme risk, which is the opposite of the purpose for which the court intervened in the matter in the first instance.

Over 1,700 applications had been filed before the Forest Bench and many were still being filed. The large number testified to the fact that separation of powers among different organs of the government and mutual respect were being eroded, the affidavit argued said and sought disposal of the two petitions on which these applications were filed.

Since 1996, the Supreme Court of India has assumed the role of the principal decision maker so far as issues relating to forests and wildlife are concerned. This has been due to Supreme Court's intervention through the following cases:

1. The T. N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs Union of India and others, concerning the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

2. The Centre for Environmental Law (CEL), WWF vs Union of India and others, concerning the issue of settlement of Rights in National Parks and Sanctuaries and other issues under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

These cases are being heard for the last nine years and are a part of what is termed as "continuing mandamus", whereby the Courts, rather than passing final judgments, keeps on passing orders and directions with a view to monitor the functioning of the executive. They have led to fundamental changes in the pattern of forest governance and decision making, activists say.

And it is this scheme of things an emotionally charged MoEFF wants to reverse.


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