The environment ministry is likely to defend its decision to have a truncated National Board for Wildlife by a technical interpretation of the law before the Supreme Court.
The government is likely to claim that while the law requires a full 47-member National Board for Wildlife, it does not set down a quorum for the meeting of the board's standing committee when it clears projects, according to sources.
"This is a policy decision taken by the Centre to expedite environmental clearances to projects of national interest which were affected for a year due to non-formation of the board," a ministry official said.
On July 22 the Centre had partly reconstituted the National Board for Wildlife with three non-government members instead of the mandatory 15. The board's standing committee, which appraises all projects falling within protected wildlife areas or within 10 km of them, was also formed with these three members.
The board is the apex body under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, to review and approve projects in and around national parks and sanctuaries.
On August 12 and 13, the standing committee chaired by Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar met and gave its nod to around 130 projects. However, on August 25, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre to put on hold the decisions taken by the board as it had noted that the nomination of board members was not done in consonance with the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act.
The official quoted above said the Centre had already initiated the process of constituting a full board. "The priority was to come up with a standing committee which operates on the same lines as the board and accords clearances. The standing committee could have met at least thrice in the past year but the process of reconstitution was held back due to the general elections," said the official. Official estimates showed that 233 projects were pending for approval with the National Board for Wildlife during the past year.
According to the Wildlife Protection Act, the board headed by the Prime Minister should have 47 members, including 15 non-government members, 19 ex-officio members and 10 government officials. But the law does not specify the formation of the standing committee of the board. The rules under the wildlife law allow the board to take decisions with half the members but are silent about the standing committee.
"The quorum for the transaction of business at a meeting of the board shall be one-half of the total number of members," the rule states.
Though the board usually meets once a year, its standing committee meets regularly to appraise pending projects and has all the powers of the board in taking decisions. The standing committee is headed by the Union environment minister.
Javadekar had told reporters on Tuesday that the ministry would provide a status report to the court after reading the detailed order. He, however, said the decision to clear projects was taken by a meeting of the standing committee which was authorised to do so. The next hearing is likely to take place within two weeks.