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The Issue With The Supreme Court Acting As An Approving Power

Context

  • In light of the crisis in Joshimath, the Indian government has decided to halt construction on the Helang-Marwari bypass, a component of the Char Dham project.
    • The Supreme Court granted approval for this project’s construction last year, and the project’s suspension now calls into question the wisdom of that ruling.
    • The supreme court has approved projects in other cases besides this one. Dams, mines, highways, and numerous other projects have started construction in the recent decades after receiving Supreme Court approval.

Relevance:

GS Paper-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation

Mains Question

The Supreme Court is often said to be not always correct, but always final. As a result, the final authority to make environmental decisions cannot also be the first authority to approve projects. Examine carefully. (250 words)


As the Executive Authority for Environmental Decisions, the Court

  • A distinctive aspect of India’s environmental governance system is the requirement for the Supreme Court’s approval for administrative decisions in environmental matters. Court As The Executive Authority Of Environmental Decisions:
  • The court’s instructions in the T.N. Godavarman (1995) and Centre for Environmental Law (1995) cases led to the creation of this procedure.

violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of the separation of powers:

  • The Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife, which is chaired by the Union environment minister, must approve any proposal involving tree-cutting or non-forest use in a national park or sanctuary, though the minister’s decision is not binding:
    • A special Supreme Court committee called the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), which consists of former Forest Service officers and is led by a retired secretary to the Government of India, must further examine the proposal.
    • The CEC may submit its own judgement and a deference to the Supreme Court for the final say if it thinks the Standing Committee’s decision is wrong. The Constitution’s guarantee of the separation of powers is prima facie violated by this procedure.

The Supreme Court has given its blessing in a number of environmental cases:

  • The custom of requesting the court’s blessing even in the absence of explicit orders became apparent in 2022 proceedings as well.
    • In December, a bench approved felling 940 trees in Salem district to upgrade a road and 0.82 hectares of forest land in Thanjavur district to widen a road.
  • Similar to this, the court approved diamond mining in Panna, Madhya Pradesh, in November after the mining company filed an application.
    • It is utterly illogical to require the approval of the highest court in order to upgrade a road or cut trees on less than a hectare of forest land outside of national parks and sanctuaries when there is no such Supreme Court directive in place.
  • The fact that user agencies, mining and power companies, and the government are directly approaching the court to seek approval by filing applications – sometimes even before statutory authorities have examined a project – makes it important to stress that these decisions are not the results of any adjudication involving opposing parties or a PIL filed by concerned individuals

Environmental decisions made by the supreme court have raised the following issues:

  • Absence of necessary skill and expertise: Unlike a specialised expert tribunal, constitutional courts lack the necessary skill and expertise to evaluate the accuracy of any project’s technical and scientific components.
    • Judges are prepared to examine and rule on whether a decision-making process is proper and legal.
    • The search for the truth in a courtroom and the search for the truth in a laboratory are very different things, as the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc. (1993). Scientific findings are constantly being revised. On the other hand, law must quickly and definitively settle conflicts.
    • The judicial orders merely state that a project is permitted subject to some common conditions; there is no critical evaluation of the project.
    • The project itself has received very little criticism. However, the executive is now free to carry out the work regardless of its social and ecological repercussions thanks to the court’s approval.
    • The Supreme Court of India has original, appellate, and advisory jurisdiction.
    • Fundamental Rights of Citizens.
      • Administrative decisions are subject to judicial review before the High Courts and the Supreme Court, which has been deemed a fundamental right. However, once the Supreme Court serves as the initial and/or final regulatory authority under a de facto regulatory regime, the opportunity for any concerned citizen to bring the matter before the High Courts, the tribunals, and even the Supreme Court is lost.
  • In other words, the fundamental right guaranteed by Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution to challenge a government decision through judicial review is eliminated.

Conclusion:

  • The constitution’s fundamental principles—such as separation of powers, judicial review, and equality before the law—are crucial components of the rule of law ( I.R. Coelho v. State of Tamil Nadu, 2007).
  • It’s often said that while the Supreme Court’s decisions are never appealable, they are always final. Therefore, the final decision-making authority cannot also be the initial decision-making authority for projects. This needs to be fixed right away, ideally by the legal system itself.

May 2024
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