New Delhi, July 21: The Supreme Court has disbanded its 17-year-old green sentinel.
The court has wound up its green bench that sat every Friday since 1995 to deal with matters of forests and wildlife and had recently banned iron ore mining in Bellary, Karnataka, one among a host of far-reaching orders related to the environment.
No reasons were given for disbanding the bench, a move legal experts said was inexplicable.
The bench has, however, not been sitting for the past month because Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia, who headed it, has been preoccupied with the Vodafone tax case and the 2G presidential reference.
Justice Kapadia, who retires on September 28, had created a second forest bench to deal with issues other than policy matters, forests, mining and projects. As ex-officio head of the first bench, he dealt with these issues.
Now, with the first bench disbanded, the later bench, created on July 16, 2010, will be the sole forest bench, said a cryptic order passed by the court administration on Thursday.
This bench, which has been sitting on Mondays, implementing orders passed by the first bench, will comprise Justices Aftab Alam, K.S. Radhakrishna and Swatanter Kumar, unlike as in the past when the Chief Justice headed it himself.
The first bench, which started sitting in 1995 in the Godavarman case, has been the longest-running instance of judicial activism in the court’s history. The only other parallel is the now-defunct green bench of Calcutta High Court.
In the Godavarman case, the court was requested to prevent illegal timber felling in the Nilgiris. The court clubbed it with other such cases and ruled that forests would not only include forests as they stood in government records but also forests as they are generally understood.
Since then, the court has listened to thousands of applications every Friday, virtually taking over the way forests are managed.
The bench ensured that sawmills and mining units did not operate without government approval. No tree could be felled anywhere in the country without the government’s nod. The bench also ensured that all states collected compensatory afforestation funds in all cases of diversion of forestland for non-forest uses.
The funds had been provided for in the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, but never took off till the bench’s intervention. At last count the funds had touched Rs 5,600 crore.
It also passed orders instituting new taxes such as the Net Present Value (NPV) to protect areas not designated as forests in the Forest Conservation Act, but under administrative control of forest departments of states.
Since October 30, 2002, user agencies have had to pay between Rs 5.8 lakh and Rs 9.2 lakh per hectare as NPV, depending on the quality of these forests.
The tax was later slapped on projects coming up on forestland. No government could de-reserve forest land without the bench’s nod. The bench cleared it after ensuring that the NPV and compulsory afforestation funds had been paid up.
But the bench had, of late, come under fire from the government, which, in 2007, filed an application urging the court to wind it up. The government claimed the court’s attempts to protect forests on the advice of laypersons were harming forests. It also sought to blame the spurt in Maoist activities in forest areas on the bench.
But the government later withdrew the application as suddenly as it had filed it. The law officer who filed it was also eased out.
Some legal experts said though inexplicable, the decision to wind up the bench could be because of controversies over several recent decisions. Green and tribal rights activists had criticised the decisions to clear mining operations by cement major Lafarge in Meghalaya and Vedanta’s plans to mine the sacred Niyamgiri hills in Odisha.
On the other hand, corporate India and the government saw the 1,700-odd applications still pending before the bench as a stumbling block to development.