New Delhi: Noting that suppression of an expert committee report regarding India’s coastal areas gives rise to many “suspicions", the Central Information Commission (CIC) asked environment minister Prakash Javadekar’s office to make the report and the action taken on it public within a month.

The report was submitted to the environment ministry in January 2015.

CIC also reiterated its earlier order to the effect that every central government minister is a public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.

The decision came on an application by environmentalist Kanchi Kohli who in February 2015 sought a copy of the Shailesh Nayak Committee report but was denied one by the environment ministry, which said that it could not share the report “until accepted".

In 1991, the first coastal regulation zone (CRZ) notification was issued under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The notification gives powers to the central government to restrict industrial activities and processes in an area for the protection of the environment along the over 7,500-km coastline of the country.

This notification was amended 25 times before it was comprehensively revised in 2011. Then, in June 2014, the ministry constituted a committee under Shailesh Nayak, the then secretary in the ministry of earth sciences, to look into issues raised by various coastal states regarding the 2011 CRZ notification.

The committee submitted its report in January 2015, which since then has been kept under complete secrecy by the ministry.

“The Commission finds the issue of disclosure of report of Shailesh Nayak Committee is very vital and of great public interest. If the report of the committee discussed the ‘errors and inconsistencies’ of the CRZ notification, they should be made known to the public… so that there can be a fair chance of analysing scientific, administrative or legal basis of these amendments, that might have been identified by the committee," said information commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu in his order on Friday (13 May).

“Sustainability of development in coastal zones is a serious concern. In this perspective, sustaining common use areas like beaches and creeks and access to the shore for everyday occupations is gradually becoming a challenge for many coastal communities. When these aspects are analysed, discussed and reported by an expert committee, there appears no justification in refusing the disclosure of report," observed Acharyulu in the order while adding that the ministry official did not even mention the exact grounds for denial of the information sought.

He said a public authority cannot invent a new defence or exemption such as “the report is under submission", “file is pending consideration" and “unless approved it cannot be given", which are not available under RTI Act.

He noted that “such an illegal refusal will amount to denial of information which would invite penal proceedings" under the RTI Act and asked the public information officer of the ministry to explain why penalty should not be imposed on it for refusing a copy of the report for no valid reason.

During the hearing, Kohli had highlighted that even as a decision on the Shailesh Nayak Committee report is pending, the ministry has notified seven amendments to the CRZ notification since January 2015, facilitating heavy construction, coastal roads and monuments in CRZ areas.

On this, Acharyulu noted in his order that, “if the report has discussed the objectives of CRZ, they should have disclosed the report before initiating process of amendment to the CRZ regulations".

“It is the duty of environment ministry to justify relaxations made without considering the ‘report’ of Shailesh Nayak. The suppression of the Shailesh Nayak report while issuing successive amendments gives rise to many suspicions, which need to be cleared," Acharyulu added.

“It has taken 14 months to get an order to bring the report out in public. The critical thing about the report is that it is actually the road map for the future of CRZ. We don’t know how much ministry has relied on this report while amending CRZ rules since January 2015. Why ministry did not want to make it public," said Kohli, legal research director at the Namati Environmental Justice Programme of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization working on a range of policies, including environmental issues.