Can government be its own watchdog?

The Union government has finally set itself free. No longer will it have to perform the dirty, stressful and thankless task of redressing environmental damage. In a sweeping move, the Union cabinet has given the nod to the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to demolish all committees that have been set up by the judiciary under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA)

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- THE Union government has finally set itself free. No longer will it have to perform the dirty, stressful and thankless task of redressing environmental damage. In a sweeping move, the Union cabinet has given the nod to the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to demolish all committees that have been set up by the judiciary under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA). These committees are to be replaced with a national environmental authority, and six regional authorities, making the MoEF its own, all-powerful, watchdog. Even worse, the government wishes to get rid of the seminal section 3 of this act, to stop the courts from forming such committees even in the future.

To be sure, this is a panic reaction to the growing ascendancy of these statutory bodies the courts set up from time to time to prod government into proper action. The courts form these statutory bodies so they can intervene effectively, and reach a definitive judgement, in complex environmental cases. The committees are formed under the rubric of the EPA. They provide technical back up; can act suo moto over the head of government agencies, and have quasi-judicial powers to act on the basis of complaints from civil society or any organisation and recommend a plan of action to the court.

While the very need of such statutory bodies -- the very presence of this practice -- points to a huge crisis of governance, it is strange that the government wants to formalise this system on a more permanent basis by setting up its own (counter)Authority. Why should this extraordinary legal provision -- invoked by the courts to find ways around weak governance -- become the very basis of governance itself? Shouldn't the concerned ministries simply do their own jobs effectively?

Committees such as the Dahanu Taluk Environmental Protection Authority, the Centrally Empowered Committee and the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority are stinging bees in official bonnets. The government particularly resents the way these committees provide space and leverage to civil society to participate in environmental cases. By appointing its own (counter)Authority it is clearly trying to curtail effective public participation and increase its own control. It is time that our napping pundits realized that the solution to its poor governance does not lie in weakening the EPA and getting rid of watchdog bodies. It has to get its own act together to minimise the need for independent surveillance.

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