In response to a RTI application seeking to make public a report by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said during an appeal hearing on April 9 that access to the report cannot be denied as it has been prepared using public resources and has far reaching impact on the ecology of the region.
A RTI was filed by G Krishnan from District Ernakulam in Kerala on September 22, 2011 to the Ministry of Environment and Forests demanding to know the summary of a report studying the ecology of the Western Ghats region.
The report consists of recommendations for dividing the Western Ghats region into various ecologically sensitive zones, and also contains broad guidelines on regulation of activities in the region.
The guidelines would have an imperative impact on agriculture, land use, mining, industry, tourism, water resources management, roads and railways in the region.
The Western Ghats are cherished as a region of wide topographical and ecological diversity. It has also been identified as a hotspot where a number of species are facing extinction.
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel was founded in 2010 by Ministry of Environment and Forest under the chairmanship of Professor Madhav Gadgil.
Its main task was to study and assess the ecological status of the region, mark those areas within the region which are ecologically sensitive, and come up with guidelines for 'conservation, protection and rejuvenation' of the region.
Later, the panel at WGEEP was also given the task of examining the Athirappilly Hydroelectric projects in Kerala.
However, the Public Information officer at the ministry refused to give out the report saying that it is not final yet and the panel members are in consultations with six state governments, eleven ministries and the planning commission over the report.
The PIO argued that the premature release of the report could lead to proposals for declaration of ecologically sensitive areas under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 ("EPA").
At the final hearing on March 23, 2012 the PIO claimed that the 'the information was protected from disclosure under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act - which exempts information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State.'
But the office of CIC lashed the claims of the PIO and said in clear terms that to argue that public servants will not involve the citizens of the country in deciding policy matters is 'specious.'
The Information Commissioner said: "That mere apprehensions of proposals being put forth by citizens and civil society who are furthering the cause of environment protection cannot be said to prejudicially affect scientific and economic interests of the country."
The CIC explicitly said 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."
Taking the argument forward, the Information Commissioner said the WGEEP report cannot be disclosed because it's not been finalised, "is not a tenable reason for refusal".