It is the right of the public to know and not a privilege of the elected government to share information based on its whims and fancies.The NDA government came to power promising greater accountability and transparency in higher echelons of government. But, on issues of environmental rights and attendant public interests it has instead worked in stealth mode on one too many occasions. It is secretively deciding important policy issues that impact large sections of society. The impact of some of these policies are also likely to be irreversible once unleashed.
The lack of information on these occasions has only ensured lack of public engagement beyond that by vested interests. As a result the people are being handed a fait accompli. At times even the final decisions come to be known from information trickling out in media rather than being announced and justified boldly by the government.
Take three instances. The government is considering permission to GM food crops such as mustard. There are dozens of other GM food crops in the pipeline after this. All records on this have been kept out of bounds.
The government – and let’s not blame it on the environment ministry alone – has deliberated for almost a year and to some extent already diluted the rights of the tribals over their forests. It has decided to lease forests to industry. These are government-controlled forests but rights of millions of tribals and others are enmeshed in these bountiful lands.
Then the government has decided to risk the lives of millions in Uttarakhand and downstream in Ganga basin on a 100 year old document rather than go by science. No one is wiser about how scientific assessment was jettisoned in favour of an antiquated colonial era agreement.
One could list several more instances that are as critical in their consequence.
Let’s not be fooled. These decisions are not about protecting some anodyne and aesthetical idea of ‘environment and forests’. These are decisions that apportion natural resources in an economy – either for a few or for many. They hold the potential of shaping the economy and the nature of economic and social justice in a society.
Therefore, policy decisions on environmental issues are a toughie. Even when such decisions are taken with the most honest intentions they require locating a fine balance between the contesting demands over lucrative resources on some occasions and between profit-making and public health and safety at other times. They involve and impact large business interests at all times.
Even if some in the government believe – ridiculously so – that there is a conspiracy by some anti-national fellows to stymie India’s economy using environmentalism as a bogey, the best way to deal with this ‘conspiracy’ is to be transparent and convince the citizens at large about its intentions and justify its decisions boldly. Decisions arrived at by stealth generate a stench of distrust especially when each of these decisions involve business interests worth billions and lives of millions. This stink now pervades some of NDA’s environmental policy decisions.
Off the record, one often hears government functionaries say they are not ‘required’ or have not been ‘ordered’ by the courts or any other authority to disclose facts so they shall decide when and if they wish to share the information. For a government that murmurs complaints about judicial activism, it is only creating more demand for such judicial intervention in the executive space.
For a government that came riding on a plank of greater transparency and is known for its obsession with messaging it is wholly bizarre to find it making policy decisions cloak and dagger style. If these decisions are being made keeping public interest paramount then the government needs to be out there explaining its views, sharing its deliberations and justifying its decisions. Most of these decisions do not render themselves to sales pitches through power point presentations, newly-coined slogans/abbreviations, tweet attacks or online form-filled databases. They require deeper two-way deeper engagement with public. It is the right of the public to know and not a privilege of the elected government to share information based on its whims and fancies.
The UPA government that brought in the RTI Act often failed to live by the legislation’s spirit of transparency. The NDA promised a sea-change. But for the better, right?