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A modern democracy in which important matters of governance have to be compelled and supervised by the judiciary needs to summon up a different kind of concern and efficiency for the benefit of the health of its executive powers. For quite a few years now, the apex court has taken an active interest in the environment, both for the sake of the environment and for the sake of the health and the rights of the people vis-à-vis their relationship with the environment. So, when the Supreme Court overrules the Centre and directs it to set up a national regulator to deal with the mandatory environmental impact assessment processes for forest-related projects (ranging from mining to industrial ventures), it is possible to see this as a high point of this tradition of intervention that is often regarded as a form of ‘judicial activism’ by those who get worried about the atrophying of the State’s executive powers. There is after all a ministry already set up to deal with such matters, and the apex court, together with all the high courts, have to deal with a steady flow of litigation that is part of its normal sphere of action. It is perhaps understandable, therefore, that the ministry should feel a little confused, first, about its own role and authority in making such assessments, and, second, about the exact nature of such a regulatory body, which is supposed to be independent and yet must be set up under the ministry’s initiative.

This is not to justify the ministry’s delays and ineptitudes, or even to overlook the possibility of vested interests on its part in not being too prompt in making these assessments. But there do exist legal checks and balances, and an infrastructure of governance with which to deal with such irregularities. So, it is best for the judiciary, and for the health of the Indian democracy, if the ministry were left to do its own job without the courts having to waste too much of their time and resources getting involved in what should rightly be managed by the ministry itself. With its handling of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the apex court has shown the country how it refrains from meddling with what it does not consider to be its own remit. The same sort of judicial restraint could be better exercised in these matters, forcing the ministry to act more efficiently and with a sense of its own accountability to the people it serves, rather than to a reprimanding judiciary.