Ministry of Environment & Forests constitutes an ecological committee to survey the Western Ghats and then sweats at making the details of the report public. RTI and judiciary direct it to make it to do so
The importance of the Western Ghats in our country is unquestionable. Considered as one of the 34 global biodiversity hot spots, they are spread across a whopping 1,29,000 odd sq kilometres.
The reason why MoEF (ministry of environment and forests) is now sweating after itself having instituted a 13-member, Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel ( WGEEP) is that the Western Ghats are spread over six states—Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Now, with most of the states having apparently trampled upon various eco-sensitive areas with activities like mining, roads and railways (instead of leaving them alone as no-development zones), the MoEF does not want to make the report public and allegedly create conflict between the central and state governments. Or encourage a public debate on perhaps open up some explosive chapters of the report that will be questioned by civic and environmental activist groups. In short, the MoEF which constituted the panel to bring back the pristine glory of the Western Ghats, is now wanting to push the issue under the carpet.
WGEEP submitted the report as required by the MoEF on 30 August 2011, after two years of thorough study which included I) field visits, wide ranging consultations with civil society, experts, concerned state governments, MoEF officials, elected representatives including Gram Panchayat members, MPs, ministers and CMs; (II) assessed the current status of ecology of the Western Ghats region and demarcated areas which needed to be notified as ecologically-sensitive and to recommend for notification of such areas as ecologically sensitive zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and; (III) made recommendations for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats Region, after public consultations.
Chairperson of WGEEP Madhav Gadgil rues:
States Madhav Gadgil, eminent environmentalist and chairperson of the WGEEP, “We undertook this task with great interest and sincerity. Basically this was a scientific task of deciding on a set of criteria for declaration of Ecologically Sensitive Zones on the Western Ghats, putting together a spatial database on ecological parameters for the region, delineating potential ecologically sensitive zones, and suggesting a strategy for conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats tract, taking into account our assignment of ecological sensitivity levels.
“We were told that it would be released at a public function on 21 September 2011. On 19 September 2011 we were informed that the report is not going to be made public for the present, and that we should not release it or discuss it publicly.”
Kerala resident invokes RTI Act in Nov 2011
RTI filed: RTI (Right to Information) Act is always the hope out. G Krishnan, a resident of Kerala, invoked the RTI in November 2011 at the MoEF office. He asked for the copy of the WGEEP report under Section 6 of the RTI Act. The Public Information Officer (PIO) denied information stating that the MoEF is still in the process of examining the report in consultation with six state governments of the Western Ghats region. Since the report was “not final and a draft under consideration of MOEF”, it cannot be disclosed under the RTI Act. Mr Krishnan was asked to file his RTI application “again at a later date after completion of the process.”
First Appeal filed: Mr Krishnan then filed a first appeal with the Appellate Authority of the MoEF but here too he was denied information stating that “it comes under Section 8” (information can be denied in this section for various reasons—here it was cited as compromising with economic interests of states, which was indeed laughable).
Second Appeal filed: Mr Krishnan then filed a second appeal with the Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi in Delhi. The PIO reasoned that “views from 11 ministries, the Planning Commission and six states were being sought. Therefore, disclosure of information at this stage would lead to various proposals as per the recommendations of the report which had not been finally accepted. This would affect the economic interests of the state.”
CIC orders MoEF to provide copy of the report by 5th May and put it up on the website by 10th May: The CIC in its order of 12th April stated that Mr Krishnan should be provided the copy of the report by 5th May. The order stated: “The PIO is directed to provide an attested photocopy of the summary of the WGEEP report to the appellant before 5 May, 2012. Further, the PIO will also ensure that the complete WGEEP report is placed on the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s website before 10 May, 2012.”
CIC Shailesh Gandhi further asked the MoEF to “publish all reports of commissions, special committees or panels within 30 days of receiving them…” and that if the MoEF feels that “any part is exempt, the reasons for claiming exemptions should be recorded and the report displayed on the website within 45 days of receipt, after severing the parts claimed to be exempt. There should be a declaration on the website about the parts that have been severed, and the reasons for claiming exemptions as per the provisions of the RTI Act.”
MoEF marches to the Delhi High Court
Not satisfied with the CIC decision, the MoEF sought legal intervention. It filed a petition with the Delhi High Court in first week of May. The MoEF argued that “a host of information in relation to the minutes of the meeting/report of the Madhav Gadgil Committee/panel; 42 commissioned papers; 7 brainstorming sessions; 1 expert consultative meeting; 8 consultations with government agencies; 40 consultations with civil society groups; 14 field visits have already been made public by placing the same on the website—www.westernghatsindia.org. Consequently, the materials which have gone into the preparation of the report of the WGEEP have been made public.”
The submission raised by the MoEF that providing a copy of the report would harm the economic interests of the state was demolished by the judge who stated that, “ It must be remembered that the object and purpose of governance in a democracy is to fulfil the will of the people. The PIO has claimed that the policy is being formulated and hence the report cannot be disclosed. This bench would like to remember Justice Mathew’s clarion call in the state of Uttar PradeshVs Raj Narain (1975) 4 SCC 428—‘In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security’. With the advent of the RTI Act, citizens have access to a variety of information held by the government and its instrumentalities. It includes information impacting the environment such as impact assessment reports, clearances, permissions/licenses provided by the concerned ministries, etc.”
The judge also interestingly remarked that, “The endeavour of the petitioner appears to be to withhold the WGEEP report so as to curb participation of the civil society and the interested environmental groups as also the common man, who is likely to be affected by the policy as eventually framed, in the debate that should take place before the policy is formulated. Before the formation of the policy, all the stakeholders should be able to deal with the report and consider whether to support or oppose the findings and recommendations made therein, and the policy should be eventually formulated after due consideration of all points of view.”
Concludes Madhav Gadgil, “If such reports are put in public domain, citizens’ views and concerns can be articulated in a scientific and reasonable manner. If the government has reasons to ignore the reports, these should logically be put before people. Otherwise, citizens would believe that the government’s decisions are arbitrary or corrupt. Such a trust deficit would never be in the interest of the nation.
“The disclosure of the WGEEP report would enable citizens to voice their opinions with the information made available in the said report. Such opinions will be based on the credible information provided by an expert panel constituted by the government. This would facilitate an informed discussion between citizens based on a report prepared with their/public money.”
We hope the report will soon be given to Mr Krishnan by the MoEF. We will keep you posted.
(Vinita Deshmukh is the editor of Life 365 (www.life365.in). She is also the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of a Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)