Chennai

Girija Vaidyanathan gets High Court nod as green panel’s expert member

Order issued: The court had stayed the appointment of the former Chief Secretary as an NGT Expert Member on April 9.  

The Madras High Court on Saturday cleared the decks for former Chief Secretary Girija Vaidyanathan to assume office as an Expert Member of National Green Tribunal (NGT).

The court vacated an interim stay imposed on her appointment and rejected a public interest litigation petition which claimed that she does not meet the statutory requirement of possessing five years of experience in dealing with environmental matters.

Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy said the former Chief Secretary, a bureaucrat with 38 years of administrative experience, had served as the Environment and Forest Secretary for nine months between December 2001 and August 2002 and as chairperson of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board for 19 months between November 2003 and May 2005. These positions pertained to environmental matters.

Tenure as Health Secy.

Apart from these, the judges agreed with her counsel M. Santhanaraman that her tenure as Health Secretary between August 2002 and November 2003 and once again from June 2011 to September 2012 should also be taken into consideration because then she was also the ex-officio chairperson of the State-level Advisory Committee for the implementation of Bio-medical Waste (management and handling) Rules of 1998.

The judges wrote: “Matters like the critical manner of disposing of different kinds of waste, particularly biomedical waste, received attention only over the last few decades when the third respondent (Ms.Vaidyanathan) was actively in service and there is no doubt that the third respondent must have been involved in setting up the ground rules for the disposal of bio-medical waste in the State.”

The first Division Bench, however, did not give much credence to her claim that she had dealt with environmental matters even in her capacity as the Chief Secretary of the State for more than two years and had even appeared before the NGT on various occasions to explain steps taken by the State on various environmental issues.

‘Tenuous association’

“Thus, without looking into the tenuous association of the third respondent as the Chief Secretary with environmental matters and without giving credence to the number of times that she may have attended the National Green Tribunal or passed by the building, the two and a half years spent by her as Health Secretary together with the nearly 28 months combined in the Environment and Forest Department and as the Chairperson of the Pollution Control Board appears to have covered almost the entirety of the five years of requisite experience and, at any rate, if given the benefit the nearest integer of any fraction,” the Bench observed.

The court also said that an exalted selection committee, comprising a sitting Supreme Court judge and a retired Supreme Court judge, would have certainly taken into consideration the experience of the Chief Secretary in dealing with environmental matters before selecting her for the post of Expert Member of NGT.“It goes without saying that an informed decision of the relevant committee also commands a degree of deference,” it added.

In the epilogue to its judgment, the Bench said: “Though the matter is over, there are many aspects that may require to be pondered over in larger public interest. For a start, the extent of a bureaucrat’s involvement in environmental matters, which would count towards his experience of five years in such regard, may require to be spelt out with more clarity in the Act for such person to be regarded the equivalent of a real expert… After all, the adjudicatory wing of the sovereign has been divested of its authority to deal with matters pertaining to environment on the perceived lack of specialised or domain knowledge of the members who man it.”

G. Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, a voluntary environmental organisation, had filed the PIL petition early this year challenging the appointment of Ms. Vaidyanthan as Expert Member of the National Green Tribunal and the court had stayed the appointment on April 9.

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