High Court stays CIC order to make the Western Ghats Ecology report public
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) was constituted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in February 2010 to assess the status of the ecology of the Western Ghats and to recommend measures for conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the region. The WGEEP was also assigned the task of identifying the areas within the western ghats which should be earmarked as ecologically sensitive zones and needed to be preserved under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The panel was expected to cover extensive area involving six states— Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It was headed by environmentalist Madhav Gadgil and submitted its report to the MoEF in August 2011. It was supposed to be released at a public function on September 21, 2011 but was release was deferred indefinitely.
An application under the Right to Information application was filed with the MoEF by G Krishnan, a resident of Ernakulam in Kerala seeking the summary of the WGEEP report. The MoEF refused the disclosure claiming that the process of examining the report in consultation with the state governments of the Western Ghats region was in process. Further, the report was not final and a thus not ready for disclosure under the RTI Act. When the matter went before the Central Information Commission (CIC), the MoEF argued that the disclosure of the documents would be prejudicially affected the scientific or economic interests of the states and the information is protected under the RTI Act.
In its order dated April 9, the CIC held that the implementation of proposals for demarcation of eco-sensitive zones, whether before or after finalisation of the WGEEP report, is an executive decision. 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. It may perhaps have to explain the reasons to public for disagreeing with a report based on logic and coherent reasons. The CIC had directed the MoEF to provide the summary of the WGEEP report by May 5 and publish the full report on the website by May 10 holding that the law requires suo moto disclosure by the public authority “while” formulating important policies and not “after” formulating them.
According to media reports, the panel objected to most of the proposed mining and power projects in the region in the Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) I and II while recommending regulating activities in ESZ III. The panel had divided the Western Ghats into three categories—Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) I, II and III—depending upon the eco-sensitivity of the area.
The order of CIC was challenged before the Delhi High Court. The Delhi High Court has stayed the CIC order on May 4 and has reserved its judgment till further hearing.