The government's decision to keep the Gadgil Committee report under wraps has prevented an informed discussion on the competing claims of development and ecology

The Western Ghats are as important to the ecological and cultural life of the nation as the Himalayas. Running from Maharashtra right down to Kerala, they are a staggeringly rich reservoir of biodiversity. They give rise to many important rivers and are home to many significant places of pilgrimage. Their forests, fields and rivers sustain tens of millions of farmers, herders, fisherfolk, pastoralists and artisans.

Over the past few decades, however, the ecological integrity of the Western Ghats has been subjected to sharp and sometimes savage attack. Unregulated logging, open-cast mining, large dams, and the diversion of land to real-estate barons have led to environmental degradation as well as social discontent.

Series of meetings

In March 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) asked Professor Madhav Gadgil to head an Expert Committee to study the situation in the Western Ghats, and recommend how best to reconcile the sometimes competing claims of environment and development. This was a wise, even inspired, choice. Gadgil is a world-renowned ecologist; born close to the Western Ghats, he has spent his professional life doing fieldwork in its woods, streams, villages and fields. Moreover, he is a pragmatic scientist who does not romanticise rural poverty or the “purity” of nature; rather, he has always sought to find ways of augmenting productivity and incomes while maintaining environmental stability.

The committee headed by Madhav Gadgil had other top ecologists as members. Government officials and civil society activists were also represented. Between March 2010 and August 2011, the committee held 14 panel meetings. Its members travelled extensively in the Western Ghats, meeting a wide range of stakeholders. It held eight consultations with government agencies and 40 consultations with civil society groups. It commissioned 42 papers by experts.

‘Interests would be affected'

In September 2011, the Committee presented a 300 page report to the MoEF. The report is likely to be exhaustive as well as balanced, brimming with insight and information. For it is the work of scientists rather than ideologues. Alas, I cannot be more specific, for, in an astonishingly short-sighted move, the Ministry has refused to make the document public. Worse, it has given no indication to the hardworking members that their service has been recognised or appreciated. Requests for appointments made by Professor Gadgil himself have been refused.

The government's secrecy has been challenged by civil society groups. An activist based in Kerala appealed to the Central Information Commission (CIC) urging that the report be released. The CIC asked the Environment Ministry the reasons for its decision. The (ambiguous) answer was that the “scientific or economic interests of the State” would be adversely affected if the report was made public. An official said the Ministry was worried that if the Gadgil Committee report was released, there would be “an influx of proposals for declaration of eco-sensitive zones in the Western Ghats” by various individuals and organisations.

The CIC considered the Ministry's reasons, before rejecting them as unpersuasive. In an order issued last month, it quoted a judgment of Justice Mathew in a case of 1975: “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.”

The Information Commissioner hearing the appeal noted that “in a democracy, the masters of the government are the citizens and the argument that public servants will decide policy matters by not involving them — without disclosing the complete reasons to the masters — is specious.” He observed that reports commissioned from scientific experts and at government expense, must be made accessible to citizens. “This would facilitate an informed discussion between citizens [and the government] based on a report prepared with their/public money.”

On trust and the corrupt

The Commissioner further observed that even if the government “decides not to accept the findings or recommendations [of such reports], their significance as an important input cannot be disregarded arbitrarily. If such reports are put in [the] public domain, citizens' views and concerns can be articulated in a scientific and reasonable manner. If the Government has reasons to ignore the reports, these should be logically put before people. Otherwise citizens would believe that the Government's decisions are arbitrary or corrupt. Such a trust deficit would never be in the interests of the Nation.”

The CIC's conclusion was forthright: putting the report in the public domain would “bring greater trust in the government and its functionaries, and hurt only the corrupt.” It instructed the Ministry to provide an attested photocopy of the report to the applicant by May 5, and to put it on the Ministry website by May 10.

Rather than follow the CIC's orders, the Ministry has chosen to appeal its decision in court. This is deeply unfortunate. For one of the few positives of the second UPA government has been the performance of the MoEF. The two Ministers who have held office since 2009 have both been focused and hard-working. They have infused energy into a previously moribund department, allowing it to more closely fulfil its original mandate, of assuring — or at least arguing for — a model of development that is sustainable rather than predatory.

That hard-won credibility has now been put at stake by the decision not to release the Western Ghats report. One can only speculate at the “special interests” that lie behind this move. Suffice it to say that those interests are antithetical to ecology, democracy, and to the history and heritage of the Western Ghats themselves.

(Ramachandra Guha is a historian. E-mail: ramachandraguha@yahoo.in)

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