The Delhi High Court has upheld the Central Information Commission (CIC) order to make the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) public by publishing it on Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) website. The court on May 17 dismissed an MoEF petition seeking not to disclose the report,saying it could affect economic and scientific interest of the states concerned Maharashtra,Gujarat,Goa,Karnataka,Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The report,prepared by a panel chaired by ecology expert Madhav Gadgil,had been submitted to the MoEF in August 2011. Last year,RTI applicant G Krishnan had filed an application with the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the MoEF to obtain a summary of the report,besides the one prepared on the proposed Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project in Kerala. The PIO turned it down saying it was only a draft and was under consideration of the MoEF.
His first appeal was rejected and he filed his second appeal last month to the CIC,which directed the MoEF to give Krishnan an attested copy of the summary of the WGEEP report as well as the Athirappilly report and put up the WGEEP report on MoEF website by May 10. The MoEF challenged the CIC order in court.
Dismissing the MoEF petition,Justice Vipin Sanghi observed,There is no reason for the petitioner to entertain the apprehension that disclosure of the report,at this stage,would impede the decision-making process or adversely affect scientific or economic interests of the state. The broad-based participative process of debate,would,in fact,help the MoEF and the states concerned in arriving at a policy decision,which is in the larger interest and for public good.
The WGEEP was constituted by the MoEF in March 2010 to assess ecology of the western ghats and recommend areas to be demarcated as ecologically sensitive. One of the 34 global biodiversity hotspots,the Westen Ghats cover Gujarat,Maharashtra,Goa,Karnataka,Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The report is important in deciding activities such as mining,tourism,agriculture,power,roads and railways.
Almost 10 months after the report was submitted,it has not been made public despite repeated attempts by activists and stakeholders.
Appearing for the MoEF,Additional Solicitor General (ASG),Indira Jaising argued that before the report is accepted by the central government,views of the six states are being considered and if the report is made public before that,there would be a spate of applications seeking notification of certain areas as ecologically sensitive,based on recommendations of the report.
The court agreed with the CIC stand that since the report was submitted to the MoEF,it could not be called a draft and could not be exempted from public disclosure. The court also agreed with the observation in the CIC order that said mere proposals for ecologically sensitive zones by citizens and the civil society,wishing to protect the environment,cannot be against scientific and economic interest of the country.
The endeavour of the petitioner seems to be to withhold the WGEEP report,so as to curb public participation of the civil society and the interested environmental groups as also the common man,likely to be affected by the policy as eventually framed,in the debate that should take place before the policy is formulated, observed Justice Sanghi,saying views of all stakeholders must be considered and thus the report should be made public.