Experts irked over revised structure of Central Empowered Committee

New notification gives unprecedented powers to central government  

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Friday 08 September 2023
CEC has a rich history of playing a crucial role in protecting the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve. Photo: iStock__

The central government on September 5 notified the formation of a “permanent” Central Empowered Committee (CEC) in response to the Supreme Court order dated August 18, 2023.

The committee on environment issues, which has been ad hoc so far, will now be recognised as a permanent statutory body.

It has been formed on a permanent basis following the SC directions in 2002, which was directed to be constituted at national level for monitoring the apex court orders pertaining to forests and wildlife cases. 

The panel was constituted in the famous TN Godavarman vs Union of States case by the SC in 2002 and was also responsible for pointing out non-compliances with the same. 

However, the new structure announced by the Union government, which omits the non-government members or two members of non-governmental organisations as existed in previous CEC, has irked the experts who alleged the move removes accountability and autonomy of the committee. 

As per the new structure, the committee will include a chairman, a member secretary, and the remaining three expert members, who are civil servants appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). 

Earlier, the expert members constituted non-governmental appointments.

Debadityo Sinha, senior resident fellow and lead, the Climate and Ecosystems team at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy said, “Though legally correct and the court itself had directed it to be constituted, the government has unprecedented powers and control over the appointment of the officials, which may not be able to counter the views of the government.”

Sinha said the CEC has a rich history of playing a crucial role in protecting the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve and Mollem Goa Project, among others. 

The CEC had issued recommendations against the three linear projects that fractured the Mollem National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. It also called for the cancellation of the South Western Railway doubling project, the shifting of the power lines and widening of national highway. 

In addition to the revised structure, clause 3 of the notification states the Centre has retained the ultimate decision making authority

As per the notification: “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.”

With the ultimate decision remaining with the government, there is no independence and can be used as a tool to override decision making power of the states, Sinha said.

Claude Alvares, director of Goa Foundation, said the move is part of the general trend ensuring that all organisations become an arm of the government. 

“I do not see the point on creating statutory body when there are already such bodies for tiger conservation, forest advisory, National Board of Wildlife and standing committee. Does it mean that these bodies are inefficient and a need for umbrella body is felt?” he said.

This is a confusing situation, said Alvares. “Appointing government officials provides no guarantee that they will question the government whom they serve,” he said. 

However, environment lawyer, Ritwick Dutta questions the very purpose of the CEC. “It is an irony that an ad hoc body existed for 21 years and the permanent body will have a life for three years.

“There is no reason why this committee should exist since the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has come into existence. Also, any government state or central or any individual is bound to comply by the directives of the SC and need not have a monitoring mechanism for the same,” he said.

The CEC had retired forest officials, so it had not been entirely independent since the beginning and was opaque in nature, he added. And for other matters such as human right violations, pollution and other issues, if the SC hears the matters, it could continue doing the same for environment.

Moreover it is not an expert body, nor ever had a website, or a functioning office, said Dutta. “There are no reports or findings published by it. And with the new provisions of having final say with the central government, how is it empowering the CEC as government has claimed in the notification?” he added.

In many instances, the CEC has submitted an approval report to the SC even before the central government had considered deciding on any project, the lawyer said. “It should have been dissolved,” he said. 

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