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No beating about the bush.
How information procured under the law led to Dow scrapping its proposed plant near Pune and a road supposed to run through a heritage botanical garden was abandoned
Last week, we discussed the contents of Section 4 of the Right to Information Act (RTI). Here are two classic examples which will elaborate on the power of inspection of documents in government offices.
Can a multinational company (MNC) be put on the mat? Can a municipal corporation be made answerable for a thoughtless decision? Yes, under Section 4, these questions were not only answered, but the information obtained in the process, quite literally, shook the powers-that-be!
Case I: Dow Chemical bites the dust..and how!
Sometime in 2008, a few activists who came to see me in my office stated that I should write against Dow Chemical which was then setting up its chemical plant, christened by Dow as a 'Research & Development Centre' in Chakan (which is a suburb of Pune and is now known as a premier automobile hub with multinational automobile manufacturing plants set up here). They argued that since Union Carbide (which was responsible for the world's worst industrial disaster in Bhopal) is a subsidiary of Dow, it had no moral right to be here. Since the buzz against this company grew stronger among villagers of Shinde Vasuli (the actual site of the plant where it was allocated 100 acres, mind you just for a Research & Development Centre as it claimed) and activists led by Justice BG Kolse Patil, I decided to procure information about the exact nature of the plant here.
When I called up the secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) in Mumbai and asked him for documents showing the nature of permissions given to Dow, he flatly refused saying he has no information on this, and that if I am so interested I should invoke the RTI Act. Obviously, Dow's entry here was a high level political decision and this bureaucrat did not want to get into trouble.
I conducted inspection of files (under Section 4) at the office of the secretary in the environment department at the Mantralaya in Mumbai; at the MPCB regional office in Pune (as it gives environmental clearances), and at the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) regional office in Pune (as it allocates land). Just a week before, Dow had released full-page advertisements in most English and Marathi dailies, stating that its plant here is a purely Research and Development Centre, that it would enhance social environment and give jobs to 600 odd scientists.
The documents procured under Section 4, revealed otherwise. The MPCB documents showed that it had been given permission to set up a 'manufacturing' unit and not just an R&D centre; Dow mentioned a list of 60-70 chemicals which it would use for the sake of 'research', of which more than 20 were hazardous under Schedule I of the Environment Protection Act. Despite the use of these chemicals, no environmental clearance certificates had been sought from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and no thorough questions were asked on how safely the company would dispose off the effluents.
Also, documents revealed that MPCB had flouted its own River Regulation Policy wherein no chemical plant is permitted within 2km of major rivers of Maharashtra. In this case it was the Indrayani River-its major tributary, the Shuda River, flowed past the chemical plant site at a distance of only 1.3 km. Another document revealed that the company had cut 14,800 trees on the site. Worst, another document showed that the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), the premier government laboratory of India, had given a clean chit to the MNC on the basis of a four-page amateurish 'essay' written by Dow (no detailed project report was available).
Armed with these ground realities, I disseminated the information to the activists and villagers, besides holding a press conference, and telling them that this was the ammunition that they should use to question the authorities. The chronology of events that followed is a huge story in itself, suffice to say that it metamorphosed into a state-wide agitation (as the Indrayani River is close to the heart of the 'Warkaris'. (Warkaris are a vast rural community in Maharashtra, devoted to Lord Vitthal of Pandharpur and Alandi, from where the Indrayani River runs. It is also the starting point of the 250 km walk for more than 10 lakh Wakaris, on their pilgrimage across the state.)
The intensity of the agitation compelled the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to make an SOS call from London to ask Dow to stall construction. To cut a long story short, some three-four months ago, Dow issued an official statement saying that due to local pressure it was withdrawing from the site and returning the land to the government.
So, what did Section 4 do in this case? It was not the work, or magic wand of a journalist, but the provision in the RTI Act helped to bring the real details of the project to the fore, helping those directly affected by it to get an insight into the real facts and act. Until then, though the activists and villagers were knocking at the door of the collector's office, asking what kind of plant was under construction in their village, they did not get answers.
Citizen participation in good governance has to be two-pronged: First, to gather authentic information that can be used as a potent tool to enable you to fight for your rights or against any injustice. And second, to participate, that is become pro-active, in any issue that concerns citizens, like the villagers did.
Case II: How a 60ft road was to cut through a heritage botanical garden
Most of the times, even neighbourhood issues can be sorted out by procuring information through Section 4 of the RTI Act.
In this respect, sometime in 2009, a reader called up to say that during his morning walk that day, he heard that a road was going to be constructed through the heritage botanical garden near the University of Pune. I asked a colleague to conduct an inspection of files in the appropriate department of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). The young bureau chief, Partha Sarathi Biswas, procured documents which showed that the municipal commissioner had gone out of his way-at the behest of a couple of councilors-to inscribe a road through the botanical garden (we procured the map which showed this) with his pen.
A municipal commissioner does have certain powers to make such modifications, but not without undertaking a public consultation and without assessing the real need for it, as a bridge just a few metres away from the garden was already doing the job (of connecting the PMC with the PCMC, Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation, which was the objective of the new road too). Besides publishing the contents of the documents in our publication, we also sent a letter to the municipal commissioner. Residents of the area also signed a signature petition. Not that the road has been cancelled from the development plan, but at least it has not been budgeted for two consecutive years thereafter.
Next week: How to write a letter demanding inspection of files under Section 4 to the concerned authority.)
The writer is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan.