SC & Centre wrangle over forest committee

 
By PADMAPARNA GHOSH
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

the dogfight over forest management in the country has intensified. On the one hand the Supreme Court and the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) continue to differ over the constitution of the Forest Advisory Committee (fac); on the other, the present government has made dodgy manouevres over the Forest Dwellers' (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005, which tribal activists and the Left have not taken to kindly (see box Left out).

On December 13, 2006, the Supreme Court rapped moef hard for disobeying its order on the constitution of a high-level advisory board on forest matters.The committee in contention--fac-- which was constituted by the ministry, has been stayed by the court and Prodipto Ghosh, secretary moef, has been asked to file a reply by January 3, 2007, explaining why the committee was constituted in violation of the court's orders. The next hearing is slated for January 5, 2007.
Confusion galore fac takes are critical to forestry matters because its recommendations are crucial to clearances for diverting forest land for purposes of mining, hydroelectric projects and other developmental projects. According to Section 3 of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, fac should be constituted by the central government in consultation with the Central Empowered Committee (cec)--which advises the court on forests--and the amicus curiae (at present, Harish Salve). But neither was consulted during its constitution in 2004. The members recommended by Salve and cec were completely ignored by the ministry. "Leave alone consultations, all the members the cec had recommended were not even considered," said a highly placed source.

The ruckus over the seven-member committee revolves around three non-official members, who are nominated every year. According to the Forest (Conservation) Rules 2003, the three non-official members should be eminent experts in forestry and allied disciplines. But in 2004, the ministry amended this rule saying, the "three non-official members shall represent mining, civil engineering and development economics". The Supreme Court stayed this amendment and directed the ministry to constitute the committee according to the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2003. Despite this, when the ministry constituted the committee in 2005 again, it ignored the court's stay order and the three members included a retired principal chief conservator of forests from Tamil Nadu, an emeritus scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and the director of the Birla Institute of Scientific Research, Nainital (see table Faulty constitution).

The apex court on September 15, 2006, dissolved the moef-constituted FAC and ordered that the committee be re-appointed in two weeks. The order said, "We are unable to comprehend the reason of constituting the FAC in terms of amended Rules which were stayed by this Court in the year 2004. The stay, admittedly, is continuing." The order also said moef should reappoint the committee in consultation with the amicus curiae and cec.

In response, moef filed an affidavit. The court came down heavily on the 'offensive' questioning of the ministry on the qualifications of the members recommended by cec. cec nominations included well-known wildlife experts and environmentalists such as P K Sen, Bittoo Sehgal, Belinda Wright, Pranay Waghray, Shyam Chainani, P K Manohar, Claude Alvares and S C Sharma. The ministry, in its affidavit, said the nominations did not fulfil their criteria. "In the event that cec or learned amicus curiae still press for their nomination as 'experts', this Ministry would request the Court to permit these persons to face a public oral examination in open court on their knowledge on the fields claimed," the affidavit read. In the affidavit, moef also objected to not having received the curriculum vitae of the nominees. The court said in response that these could be easily obtained.

Down to Earth

The court has also directed that a decision on fac will be binding and in case of conflict with moef, the court may be approached.

Old whine
The recent discord is not new. The past few months has seen the Supreme Court coming down heavily on quite a few forest-related issues and pass significant judgments. Major judgments include the one on temporary mining permits (see 'Court gets tough', Down To Earth , October 31, 2006), closure of 1,640 sawmills in Uttar Pradesh, notification of a buffer area around ecologically sensitive areas and Kudremukh mining. But the court has gone soft on hydroelectric projects, such as the Tehri and the Narmada dams.

The other charged-up case with the apex court is Vedanta mining in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa. The issue of mining in that region has been splattered with angry protests and demonstrations. Although a decision is still awaited, environmentalists fear that the decision will not be in their favour. The Wildlife Institute of India (wii) has also back-pedalled on its scathing report against the mining project. wii later furnished a second report, which recommends that mining be allowed with mitigation strategies in place. wii has been severely criticised by environmental groups on the somersault.

"There have been significant decisions by the court on forest issues but not so much on other environmental issues," says Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer, Supreme Court.

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