In recent news reports there have been deliberations on whether there is a possibility of appealing a central government decision on forest clearances. In this context, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed states to comply with the statutory requirement of passing an order notifying diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. It has also held that it can hear appeals from the orders of state governments and other authorities on forest clearances. The NGT was established in 2010 to deal with cases relating to environmental protection, and conservation of forests and other natural resources. The need was felt to have a mechanism to hear appeals filed by aggrieved citizens against government orders on forest clearances. For instance, the NGT can hear appeals against an order of the appellate authority, state government or pollution control board under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. How is a forest clearance obtained? Obtaining a forest clearance is a key step in the process of setting up a project. Recently the Chhatrasal coal mine allotted to Reliance Power's 4,000 MW Sasan thermal power project in Madhya Pradesh has received forest clearance. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) first gives ‘in-principle’ approval to divert forest land for non-forest purposes based on the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee. This approval is subject to the project developer complying with certain conditions. Once these conditions are complied with, the central government issues the final clearance. It is only after this clearance that the state government passes an order notifying the diversion of forest land. The NGT’s decision deals with this point in the process during which an appeal can be filed against the order of forest clearance. For the flowchart put out by the MoEF on the procedure for obtaining a forest clearance, see here. What was the NGT’s ruling on forest clearances? The NGT was hearing an appeal against a forest clearance given by the MoEF to divert 61 hectares of forest land for a hydroelectric project by GMR in Uttarakhand. The NGT has ruled that it does not have the jurisdiction to hear appeals against forest clearances given to projects by the MoEF. However, the NGT has the power to hear appeals on an order or decision made by a state government or other authorities under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The judgment observed that though Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 requires that state governments pass separate orders notifying the diversion of land, this requirement is not being followed. The NGT has directed that state governments pass a reasoned order notifying the diversion of the forest land for non-forest purposes, immediately after the central government has given its clearance. This will allow aggrieved citizens to challenge the forest clearance of a project after the state government has passed an order. Additionally, the NGT has also directed the MoEF to issue a notification streamlining the procedure to be adopted by state governments and other authorities for passing orders granting forest clearance under section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. There are some concerns that an appeal to the NGT can only be made after the state government has passed an order notifying the diversion of forest land and significant resources have been invested in the project. What is the status of applications for forest clearances made to the MoEF? The MoEF has given approval to 1126 proposals that involve the diversion of 15,639 hectares of forest land from July 13, 2011 to July 12, 2012. The category of projects accorded the most number of approvals was road projects (308) followed by transmission lines (137). Some of the other categories of projects that received clearance for a significant number of projects were mining, hydel and irrigation projects. However, most land was diverted for mining related projects i.e., 40% of the total forest land diverted in this period. Figure 1 shows a break up of the extent of forest land diverted for various categories of projects. The number of forest clearances pending for decision by the MoEF for applications made in the years 2012, 2011 and 2010 are 197, 129 and 48 respectively. [i]
 MoEF, Rajya Sabha, Unstarred Question no. 2520, September 4, 2012
On June 13, 2022, the West Bengal government passed a Bill to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister, as the Chancellor of 31 state public universities (such as Calcutta University, Jadavpur University). As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20), state public universities provide higher education to almost 85% of all students enrolled in higher education in India. In this blog, we discuss the role of the Governor in state public universities.
What is the role of the Chancellor in public universities?
State public universities are established through laws passed by state legislatures. In most laws the Governor has been designated as the Chancellor of these universities. The Chancellor functions as the head of public universities, and appoints the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Further, the Chancellor can declare invalid, any university proceeding which is not as per existing laws. In some states (such as Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand), the Chancellor has the power to conduct inspections in the university. The Chancellor also presides over the convocation of the university, and confirms proposals for conferring honorary degrees. This is different in Telangana, where the Chancellor is appointed by the state government.
The Chancellor presides over the meetings of various university bodies (such as the Court/Senate of the university). The Court/Senate decides on matters of general policy related to the development of the university, such as: (i) establishing new university departments, (ii) conferring and withdrawing degrees and titles, and (iii) instituting fellowships.
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 designates the Chief Minister of West Bengal as the Chancellor of the 31 public universities in the state. Further, the Chief Minister (instead of the Governor) will be the head of these universities, and preside over the meetings of university bodies (such as Court/Senate).
Does the Governor have discretion in his capacity as Chancellor?
In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the Governor was not bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, while discharging duties of a separate statutory office (such as the Chancellor).
The Sarkaria and Puunchi Commission also dealt with the role of the Governor in educational institutions. Both Commissions concurred that while discharging statutory functions, the Governor is not legally bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. However, it may be advantageous for the Governor to consult the concerned Minister. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that state legislatures should avoid conferring statutory powers on the Governor, which were not envisaged by the Constitution. The Puunchi Commission observed that the role of Governor as the Chancellor may expose the office to controversies or public criticism. Hence, the role of the Governor should be restricted to constitutional provisions only. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 also mentions this recommendation given by the Puunchi Commission.
Recently, some states have taken steps to reduce the oversight of the Governor in state public universities. In April 2022, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed two Bills, to transfer the power of appointing the Vice-Chancellor (in public universities) from the Governor, to the state government. As of June 8, 2022, these Bills have not received the Governor’s assent.
In 2021, Maharashtra amended the process to appoint the Vice Chancellor of state public universities. Prior to the amendment, a Search Committee forwarded a panel of at least five names to the Chancellor (who is the Governor). The Chancellor could then appoint one of the persons from the suggested panel as Vice-Chancellor, or ask for a fresh panel of names to be recommended. The 2021 amendment mandated the Search Committee to first forward the panel of names to the state government, which would recommend a panel of two names (from the original panel) to the Chancellor. The Chancellor must appoint one of the two names from the panel as Vice-Chancellor within thirty days. As per the amendment, the Chancellor has no option of asking for a fresh panel of names to be recommended.