In an order that should make eco-activists cheer, Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi has asked the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to disclose the report submitted by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) chaired by Professor Madhav Gadgil. The CIC overruled the arguments of MoEF Deputy Director Dr. Amit Love, who in his capacity as the mnistry's public information officer argued that the "scientific or economic interests of the State" would be affected by disclosure at this stage.
The WGEEP was set up in 2010 to assess the ecological status of the Western Ghats region, to demarcate areas within the said region required to be notified as ecologically sensitive, and make recommendations for conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the region. Subsequently the panel was also given the task of examining the Athirappilly Hydroelectric projects.
CIC Shailesh Gandhi's order is available from this link. The highlights of the Order are as below:
Reasons for denial must be as per the Act
As Professor Gadgil's report has already been submitted to MoEF, it cannot be denied on the grounds that it is a 'draft' report. In any case, there is no provision in the RTI Act which exempts from disclosure a report that has not been finalised or accepted by a public authority, nor is there a provision to withhold 'confidential' information from the public. The PIO cannot claim a basis for denying information that is not permitted in the Act specifically.
This ruling may set precedent for all reports of Panels, Experts, Committees, and Commissions which are set up by Government.
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 State of Uttar Pradesh v. 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".
Don't hide reports to avoid alternate proposals
The PIO argued that premature release of the report (containing the methodology for demarcation) into the public domain without adequate consultations with the state governments/central ministries to refine the boundaries of ecosensitive areas may lead to a situation wherein there would be an influx of proposals for declaration of eco-sensitive zones in the Western Ghats by individuals/groups/organizations. His contention is that this would impact economic progress and interests. The order rejects this reasoning, saying, "Mere apprehension of proposals being put forth by citizens and civil society who are furthering the cause of environment protection cannot be said to prejudicially affect the scientific and economic interests of the country. Disclosing a report or information does not mean that the government has to follow it."
Denial of information protects only vested interests
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. The order rejects such reasoning, saying, "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'".
Gandhi noted that with the advent of the RTI Act, citizens have access to information impacting the environment such as impact assessment reports, clearances, permissions/licenses provided by the concerned ministries, etc. This has enabled them to knowledgeably understand environmental issues. Citizens and civil society, who are actively pursuing the objective of protecting the biodiversity of ecologically sensitive regions, flora, fauna, and endangered species, now have access to information which allows them to obtain a true picture of our ecosystem.
The arguments made and ruled on in this case lead to the conclusion that all reports of Panels, Experts, Committees, and Commissions which are set up
by Government by spending public funds must be displayed suo moto as per the mandate of Section 4(1)(c)&(d) read with 4(2). This could have
far-reaching consequences for transparency in government, not only in environmental issues but in every domain.