The Central Empowered Committee, constituted nearly two decades ago by the Supreme Court to oversee matters related to forest and environment conversation, will now report to the Union government, reported Hindustan Times.

The environment ministry issued a notification on September 5, recognising the ad hoc committee as a permanent statutory body. This came in response to a Supreme Court order from August 18 that permitted the move “in the interest of all the stakeholders”.

The committee was constituted in September 2002 under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. It has filed thousands of reports on cases referred to it by the Supreme Court on compensatory afforestation, mining projects and the net present value of forests.

The members of the committee included a chairman, who was nominated by the environment ministry in consultation with an amicus curiae (friend of court), a nominee of the ministry and two members from non-governmental organisations.

Concerns about independence

The committee will no longer have members from non-governmental organisation, and will function under the administrative control of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. This has led to some experts expressing concerns about its independence.

The committee will now have a chairperson with at least 25 years of experience in the field of environment, forests and wildlife, or administrative experience of at least 25 years in the central or state governments. The chairperson will be nominated by the central government for a tenure of three years.

The member secretary has to be a full-time serving officer of the government not below the rank of deputy inspector general of forests or director in the Union government with at least 12 years of experience. The person holding this post will be also appointed by the Centre.

It will also include three government-nominated expert members from the fields of environment, forests and wildlife with at least 20 years of experience.

In addition, the notification also makes it clear that the ultimate decision-making power rests with the Centre. “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,” it read.

It has led experts to question the dilution of the committee’s powers.

“Most of the environmental violation cases involve government actions,” Debadityo Sinha, who leads the Climate and Ecosystems team at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said in a tweet. “The pertinent question arises: How can one anticipate the CEC to function independently or issue impartial judgments when its composition solely consists of civil servants appointed by the government?”

Claude Alvares, the director of environmental action group Goa Foundation, told Down To Earth that he sees this move as another push towards the centralisation of power.

“Appointing government officials provides no guarantee that they will question the government whom they serve,” said Alvares.