The High Court of Karnataka has said that the post of chairperson of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) cannot be occupied by officers holding the posts of Additional Chief Secretary (ACS) or Principal Secretary (PS), Forest, Ecology and Environment, in ex officio capacity beyond six months whenever the post becomes vacant.
Also, the court termed as “illegal” the State government’s August 31 corrigendum, which resulted in abruptly ending the tenure of KSPCB’s incumbent chairperson Shanth A. Thimmaiah with retrospective effect from March 4, 2022, and made it clear that he has tenure up to November 14, 2024 as per the appointment order.
A Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Prasanna B. Varale and Justice Krishna S. Dixit delivered the verdict while disposing of petitions filed by Mr. Thimmaiah, who had questioned the legality of his removal from the post; and also a batch of PIL petitions, related to norms for appointing chairperson, members, and member-secretary to the KSPCB, through which the court had monitored framing of guidelines by the government for making nominations to these posts as per the law and the judgments of the apex court.
The Bench pointed out that the revised guidelines, issued on August 31, 2023, for making appointment to the post of chairperson, not only allows the ACS or the PS of the department to occupy the post of chairperson in ex officio capacity till the new person nominated by the government but also gives wide discretion to the government for not filling the ‘casual vacancy’ by way of nomination ‘without assigning any reason’.
“Such a carte blanche is undesirable, to say the least, ‘reasoned decisions’ being the requirement of a welfare State. Therefore, the term ‘without assigning any reason’ cannot be sustained in the guidelines. Further, the expression ‘for reasons to be recorded in writing’ needs to be introduced in the stead,” the Bench said.
Appointment can’t be delayed
“We emphasise that the ‘casual vacancy’, whatever be the reason for its accrual, in the office of the chairperson of the KSPCB shall not be occupied by the functionaries [ACS and PS of the department] for a period beyond six months and therefore, the normative appointment by way of selection has to be made without brooking delay,” the Bench said while directing the government to rephrase the guidelines.
Dr. Thimmaiah’s appointment
The Bench outrightly rejected the government’s contention that Dr. Thimmaiah was appointed only for the remaining tenure of the then chairperson, whose tenure would have come to an end on March 4, 2022, had he continued in the post; and the tenure up to November 14, 2024, was, by mistake, wrongly mentioned in the November 15, 2021, notification of appointing Dr. Thimmaiah to the post.
The corrigendum issued on August 31, 2023, in the guise of rectifying the notification issued on November 15, 2021, had ended Dr. Thimmaiah’s term with retrospective effect from March 4, 2022.
Pointing out that records on the process of selection and appointment show that Dr. Thimmaiah’s appointment was for a full term of three years from November 15, 2021, to November 14, 2024, and not for a ‘casual vacancy’, the Bench said that “how all of a sudden, this ‘mistake’ was discovered, by whom and when, remain enigmatic”.
Meanwhile, the Bench termed as “premature” to interfere with an inquiry initiated by the government against Dr. Thimmaiah and said that he would get a chance to respond to the outcome of the inquiry as per law.