Cabinet signs death warrant for green panels

in one fell swoop the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) is preparing to disband several key committees set up under section 3 (iii) of the Environment (Protection) Act (epa), 1986. The dissolved panels will be replaced with a national environment authority and six regional authorities. The new structure is expected to be in place within the next three to four months. The cost of the overhaul: Rs 21 crore.

Not only are experts upset over the Union cabinet's July 31 decision, a section of the moef too is said to have expressed dismay. "The moef sees existing bodies like the Dahanu Taluk Environment Protection Authority (dtepa), Centrally Empowered Committee (cec) and Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (epca) as a hindrance to its functioning. So it wants to conveniently get rid of (what it perceives to be) trouble-mongers,' alleges a senior official of the ministry belonging to the dissenters' camp.

As if this were not enough, the moef plans to go a step further and amend the epa so that no more committees can be formed in the future. There is, however, one obstacle. Committees such as the cec and epca have been constituted by the Supreme Court (sc), and the moef needs to seek its permission before proceeding with the dismantling exercise. In fact, cases pertaining to others like dtepa are still on. V Rajagopalan, joint secretary, moef, says the ministry will be approaching the apex court on the issue.

Rajagopalan divulges details of the proposed set-up: "The national autho rity will comprise a chairperson (possibly a retired sc judge), a member secretary and two members.' It will have appellate jurisdiction to hear pleas against orders passed by the regional authorities. "The new entities would be vested with powers provided in section 3 (iii) of epa as well as those enjoyed by panels set up under epa,' reveals Rajagopalan.

The regional authorities will be based in Bangalore, Bhopal, Bhubaneswar, Shillong, Lucknow and Chandigarh. Interestingly, these locations also house moef offices. A ministry official claims this would facilitate the regional authorities' operations. But experts fear that the bodies would be reduced to regional bureaucratic branches of the moef.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's Office (pmo) is said to have colluded with the moef in the matter. An moef official discloses that the pmo got involved during the sc case on mining in Karnataka's Kudremukh National Park. "The pmo sided with the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited, but the sc directed the company to wind up its activities by 2005. Significantly, the court's order was based on the recommendations of cec. The pmo must have hardened its resolve to eliminate such committees after this episode,' says the official. The response of Ashok Tandon, officer on special duty, pmo, is guarded. "Only the environment ministry is authorised to speak on the issue,' he says tersely.

It is evident that the decks are being cleared for moef to call the shots.