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Prising open official reports

By Darryl D'Monte

In a decision with important implications, the CIC has forced the MoEF to upload the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts taskforce headed by Madhav Gadgil, ruling that information must be put in the public domain as decisions are being made, not after

Dr Madhav Gadgil Right to Information Act
Madhav Gadgil in discussion with villagers

For environmentalists, Dr Madhav Gadgil is no stranger. He retired as founder of the authoritative Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore -- arguably, the most authentic environmental research body in this country, with the possible exception (in select cases) of the environmental studies department at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was educated at Harvard as a mathematical biologist, which equips him to pronounce judgment on such issues. 

His father was the eminent economist, D R Gadgil, who had the courage to take issue with Gandhiji on certain economic policies. Gadgil Jr has retired in his hometown Pune, where his sister, Professor Sulabha Brahme, also an economist of some standing, has lived and taught.

Gadgil has done pioneering work on the ecology of the Western Ghats, sometimes in collaboration with anthropologist Dr K C Malhotra. Their study of sacred groves and the role of the pastoral caste known as gavli dhangars, who are itinerant herders of goats and buffaloes, remains fresh in the memory of environmentalists. He has written numerous books: Ecology & Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India (1995), considered a classic, is co-authored with Ramachandra Guha.

In 2001, Gadgil looked back at his Ecological Journey: The Science and Politics of Conservation in India (Permanent Black), about his long career as a pedigreed academic who occasionally wrote reports on behalf of governments, some of which turned out to be a bit controversial.

This is exactly what has happened with the recent report of the taskforce which he headed on the ecology of the Western Ghats. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which commissioned the study, probably did not suspect that something as innocuous as the state of this chain of hills could prove problematic. These ghats, and in particular what are known as sholaforests in the relatively inaccessible ‘cleavage’ of the hills, contain the finest specimens of biodiversity in the country, along with the even more generously endowed northeastern states, Arunachal in particular.

It is only just now (it was submitted last August and spent several months in hibernation) that the MoEF has uploaded the report on its website, after protracted complaints by ecologists. And it has issued a caveat: “The Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP) report has not been formally accepted by the ministry. The report is still being analysed and considered.” It gives 45 days for objections and suggestions from the public.

It is thanks to the intervention of the Central Information Commission in general and intrepid information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi in particular that the report was prised from the clutches of officialdom. In September last year, a petitioner from Kerala, G Krishnan, asked for a copy. The government replied: “The MoEF is still in the process of examining the report of the WGEEP in consultation with six state governments of the Western Ghats region. The report is not final and a draft under consideration of the MoEF and thus not complete/ready for disclosure under the RTI Act.” The appellant was requested to file his RTI application again at a later date after completion of the process.

Krishnan filed an appeal in November, only to be given the same reply! He filed another appeal the very same month, whereupon the First Appellate Authority (FAA) of the Commission said that the information sought need not be disclosed under Section 8 of the RTI Act. At a subsequent hearing of the Commission this March, it noted that the MoEF’s principal information officer, Dr Amit Love, had not brought up this argument in his initial reply.

When asked by the Commission to explain the specific interest that might be affected, on the basis of which the exemption was claimed, Dr Love admitted that the sovereignty and integrity, security or strategic interests of the state would not be affected. However, he argued that the “scientific or economic interests of the state” would be prejudicially affected on disclosure of the information at that stage. Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act exempts “information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state”.

Dr Love stated that the report had proposed the methodology for demarcation of ecologically sensitive zones; this was required to be refined. He submitted that premature release of the report could lead to demands/proposals for declaration of ecologically sensitive areas under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EPA). He further stated 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. He submitted that the MoEF intended to put the report in the public domain once the policy was finalised. This was clearly putting private interests above public good.

In his decision in April, Gandhi noted: “The WGEEP report inter alia contains recommendations for demarcation of ecologically sensitive zones in the Western Ghats region, broad sectoral guidelines for regulation of activities therein and establishment of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority under the EPA for the entire Western Ghats region. The WGEEP has developed a scientific methodology wherein a geospatial database and multi-criteria decision support system based on eight variables relating to ecology, biodiversity and topography had been used to identify, demarcate and delineate ecologically sensitive zones in the Western Ghats region. The WGEEP held wide consultations with principal stakeholders such as civil society, government officials and people’s representatives including various elected representatives. It also conducted field visits and held public consultations.

“The Supreme Court of India has recognised that the right to information is a fundamental right of the citizens of India under Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India. The RTI Act has codified this fundamental right mandating that every citizen shall have the right to information, subject only to the provisions of the RTI Act. It sets out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of such an authority. The RTI Act recognises that a democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information, and the need for transparency in information to contain corruption and to hold the government and its instrumentalities accountable to the citizens.”

He cited the erudite Supreme Court Justice K K Mathew’s stirring judgment in the case State of Uttar Pradesh v Raj Narain (1975): ‘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.’

Gandhi continued: “Further, the PIO appears to suggest that a slow-down in economic activity on account of environmental concerns is not desirable. If an economic activity causes substantial loss to the environment, then it is necessary that such an activity is not carried out or deferred to a later date (where it can be carried out in a manner which is less damaging to the environment). In such circumstances, there would only be a delay in implementing the project and the monetary gains expected from it. The economic gain would merely be postponed, since the resources would remain where they were. At a future date, the economic gain would still accrue. The only real loss may be to some people who wish to exploit the resources presently. The nation would not really lose. On the other hand, if the economic activity is allowed to be carried on without a proper appreciation of its deleterious consequences, it would lead to an irreversible destruction of the environment with valuable resources being lost. This would be against the tenet of ‘sustainable development’, as elaborated above.

“The RTI Act recognises the above mandate and in Section 4 contains a statutory direction to all public authorities ‘to provide as much information suo moto to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication, including the Internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information’. More specifically, Section 4 (1) (c) of the RTI Act mandates that all public authorities shall ‘publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect the public’. It follows from the above that citizens have a right to know about the WGEEP report, which has been prepared with public money, and has wide ramifications for the environment.

“Disclosure of the WGEEP report will enable citizens to debate in an informed manner and provide useful feedback to the government, which may be taken into account before finalising the same. It is claimed by the PIO that the policy is being formulated and hence the report cannot be disclosed. The law requires suo moto disclosure by the public authority ‘while’ formulating important policies and not ‘after’ formulating them. Obviously, the thinking was that our democracy is improved and deepened by public participation in the process of decision-making, and not when a policy is finalised and then merely announced in the name of the people.”

In conclusion, the order read: “The Commission directs that the Ministry of Environment and Forests should publish all reports of commissions, special committees or panels within 30 days of receiving them, unless it feels that any part of such report is exempt under the provisions of Section 8 (1) or 9 of the RTI Act. If it concludes 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. This direction is being given by the Commission under Section 19 (1) (b) (iii) of the Act to the secretary, MoEF. Copy of this decision will be given free of cost to the parties. Any information in compliance with this order will be provided free of cost as per Section 7 (6) of the RTI Act.”

This is obviously a decision with enormous implications, not just for environmental activists but for those seeking the now-accepted fundamental right to information in general. Immediately, it should have a bearing on those like Aruna Roy who are pressurising the Department of Atomic Energy and Nuclear Power Corporation of India to release the report on the safety of the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, built with Russian technology, as the Central Information Commission ordered on May 1.

Infochange News & Features, June 2012