CIC asks Javadekar to release 'suppressed' coastal zone report
Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar's office has been instructed to make public an expert committee report that his ministry has been "suppressing" for over a year. In a significant order, the Central Information Commission, on 13 May, came down heavily on the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for denying an Right to Information (RTI) applicant a report submitted by the Shailesh Nayak high-level committee in early 2015.
The CIC has instructed Javadekar's office to make the report public. This was done because during the proceedings before the CIC, it transpired that the report was submitted to the minister, and was lying with him.
The CIC said the ministry's reasons for denying the report under RTI were "arbitrary" for which the ministry "invented new defences" that were not available under the RTI Act.
Stating that the ministry officials did not discharge their duties under the RTI Act, the CIC order says it "requires" the ministry to conduct training for all its public information officers and appellate authorities.
It has also issued a showcause notice to the ministry's public information officer who denied the report, to answer within three weeks, why he shouldn't be punished under provisions of the RTI Act.
What is the Nayak committee report?
The Shailesh Nayak committee was set up by the NDA government in June 2014, within a month of coming to power, to review the Coastal Regulatory Zone Notification, 2011.
All activities within 500 metres from the coast need clearance under the CRZ Notification. India's 7,517-kilometre long coastline includes some of the biggest cities besides ports and industries.
Acting on its poll promise to ease green clearances, the 6-member committee was set up on 17 June 2014 under Shailesh Nayak, the then secretary of Ministry of Earth Sciences. The members included bureaucrats and scientists.
The committee was also asked to look into specific issues raised by state governments of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala. The panel consulted widely, meeting the chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy and speaking to Maharashtra CM, Devendra Fadnavis, over the phone, one of its members told Catch in a recent meeting.
While the committee submitted its report in January 2015, the report was never put out, and the panel members never heard back from the government.
But to the surprise of everyone, the ministry began making changes to the CRZ Notification anyway. It made two changes before the report was submitted, and six afterwards.
This raised many questions: Were the changes as per the Nayak committee recommendations? If they were, then why wasn't the government releasing the report? If not, then why was the government differing from the expert committee?
This was all the more suspicious because another committee formed to review green laws was given the opposite treatment. A committee under former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian was formed around the same time the Nayak committee was, but its report was widely publicised. The report recommended relaxing green laws and relying more on corporate disclosures - an agenda seen close to the NDA government's.
Either way, something was fishy.
Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research-Namati Environment Justice Program, and a well known researcher on coastal issues, filed a RTI request on 22 February, 2015, with the environment ministry, seeking a copy of the Nayak committee report.
The request was denied on 18 March, 2015, stating that the report cannot be given until it was accepted by the ministry.
Kohli's appeal to the first appellate authority questioning this, was also denied. She then appealed to the CIC, whose decision finally came on 13 May.
The order passed by Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu, said that disclosing the Nayak committee report was "very vital and of greater public interest", especially because it could have helped evaluate the amendments the government has made to the CRZ Notification.
"If the report has discussed the objectives of [CRZ], they should have disclosed the report before initiating process of amendment to the [CRZ] regulations. The suppression of Shailesh Nayak report while issuing successive amendments gives rise to many suspicions, which need to be cleared," the order reads.
The order came down strongly on the environment ministry:
- It pulls up the public information officer, Dr Shard, Scientist 'D' in the ministry, who first denied the report, and the first appellate authority, Dr Manoranjan Hota, an additional director in the ministry.
- The order said the denial of information by the two was "arbitrary". It said a report can be denied only using reasons available in the RTI Act, and the ministry cannot "invent a new defence" such as that the report is under consideration.
- It has asked Dr Shard to give reasons, within 21 days, as to why action should not be initiated against him, for refusing a copy of the committee report, without a valid reason.
- It has ordered the Minister's office to make the report available to Kohli, along with the latest action taken report, within a month.
Several organisations working in the field of coastal regulation and conservation have been curious to know what the Nayak committee recommendations were. Some had filed RTI requests seeking a copy of the report.
"The order is also significant because it is applicable not just to this report. It shows that the ministry cannot hide reports, even draft ones, and that a report being 'under consideration' is not a good enough reason," Kohli told Catch.
Edited by Sahil Bhalla