Environment ministry sets up new panel replacing Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee

New Delhi: Under revamped structure, all members of CEC to be civil servants selected by Union government

BY | Friday, 8 September, 2023

The Union Environment Ministry has set up a new Central Empowered Committee (CEC), replacing an ad hoc expert panel with the same name which assisted the Supreme Court in matters of forest and environment issues.

The CEC, initially established by the apex court in 2002, served as a watchdog for issues pertaining to environmental conservation and compliance.

Over the years, the committee has played a pivotal role in shaping India’s environmental policy and governance landscape.

While its restructuring aims to make it more efficient, questions remain about its independence under the government’s complete control.

This development comes shortly after the passage of the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, which critics argue weakens existing safeguards in Indian forest law, potentially facilitating construction projects in ecologically sensitive regions.

The Union government will nominate and appoint members to the new CEC, according to a September 5 notification.

Under the revamped structure, the CEC will comprise a chairperson, a member secretary and three expert members, all selected by the Union government.

The chairperson, with a minimum of 25 years of experience in environmental, forestry, or wildlife fields or substantial administrative expertise in government, will serve a maximum term of three years.

The member secretary must hold a rank not lower than deputy inspector general or director in the government and possess at least 12 years of experience in environmental, forestry, or wildlife matters. The three expert members, one each from the environment, forest, and wildlife sectors, should have a minimum of 20 years of expertise.

Critics have voiced concerns that this change concentrates excessive power within the government. Previously, the CEC comprised members nominated by the environment ministry and two NGOs selected in consultation with the amicus curiae, offering a more balanced approach.

“The CEC was constituted in the famous T N Godavarman case by the Supreme Court to monitor its orders in forest and wildlife cases since 2002. The GoI has full control over the constitution of the CEC from now onwards.

“Compared to the previous composition of the CEC as constituted by the Supreme Court, which included a member nominated by the ministry & 2 NGOs selected in consultation with the Amicus Curiae, the current notification introduces a significant transformation,” ecologist Debadityo Sinha expressed on X, formerly Twitter

“The notification completely removes non-governmental members from the committee. In the revised structure, the chairman, member secretary, & all 3 expert members will now be civil servants appointed by the MoEFCC,” he said.

Sinha further said, “Most of the environmental violation cases involve government actions. 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?”

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