Using RTI to protect our environment

It is no secret that Sri Lanka’s development has come at a great cost to the environment. Although we hear reports on environmental impact once the damage is done, the public is left resource-less to find out how and why such damaging development projects were allowed to take place in the first place, or to prevent similar destruction in the future.

When an international beverage manufacturing company leaked oil into the Kelani River in 2015, the public was left wondering how the Central Environmental Authority, which claims to have frequently monitored waste disposal at the factory, could have allowed for the factory to leak oil into the river for six straight days, poisoning hundreds who use it as a drinking source. When the Mattala airport was being built, the Department of Wildlife Conservation at the time had reported to environmentalists that only 800 hectares of wildlife habitat would be cleared to make room for the airport; the final amount was actually 2000 hectares, which destroyed elephant corridors in the area and escalated the elephant-human conflict in the area as elephant populations found themselves trapped in pockets.

The Right to Information has vast potential to prevent and rectify such instances of misinformation and negligence. Considering the ramping up of development projects across the country, RTI will be a powerful tool for both activists and ordinary citizens concerned about the environment.

In India, Mr. Shivaji Raut, a school teacher, used RTI to prevent illegal use of forest land for commercial purposes. He realized that a special medicinal herb was being illegally harvested from the area and used RTI to demand permits granted by the Forest Department. When his request was denied, he appealed and once the information was supplied, he took it to the media.[1]

In another instance, when drinking water was contaminated in Patparganj, Delhi, RTI was used to seek the status of complaints and names of officials responsible. Within two days of filing the RTI application, the repairs on the sewers were carried out and safety of drinking water was tested.[2] The pressure of simply having filed the request was enough for action to be taken.

 

Sri Lanka can anticipate using RTI towards greater protection of our environment by emanating such examples and using it creatively. Below are some questions that citizens have already formulated to use in RTI applications for environmental concerns. What questions would you ask? Take our 5 minute survey

  1. What is the extent of forest cover in Sri Lanka currently? What was the extent in 1948 at the time of independence?
  2. What are the justifications for planned felling of trees? Who are the civil servants (e.g. politicians) who were/are responsible for such plans?
  3. Request for reports from Central Environmental Authority and Department of Wildlife Conservation regarding impact on elephant corridors during the Mahaweli development project and rapid road constructions in the area.
  4. Request for reports on fish populations and corresponding details of poaching of the areas.
  5. What are the rules and regulations relating to the grant of import licences to ornamental fish importers? What are the procedures followed by customs in imposing taxes? What is the revenue of the country out of this?

[1] ‘Right to Information Act, 2005: A guide for Civil Society Organisations.’ Capacity Building for Access to Information: a GoI-UNDP Initiative. Centre for Good Governance, July 2006, p. 79

[2] Ibid. p. 91