Public Hearing of PARYAVARAN MITRA : A way for transparent identity!

  • Background

We refer to the State and Civil Society as two ends of the spectrum where the state forms the elected representatives of civil services. Democratic institutions are not complete unless we have the voice of people who have a legitimate space in the relationship between the above two. Therefore any organized form of public representation to either of these constitutes the civil society process or civil society action. NGOs registered under charitable societies or charitable trusts form only one form of public representation. The moment they start accessing public funds they move from the domain of being independent to being directly accountable to the public and not via the state. The present level of accountabilities such as reports to government and annual reports is not sufficient. Therefore once in 2 or 3 years they need to go to the public for public accountability and therefore the public hearing.

In the latter part of the 80’s, under the aegis of the Planning Commission, there was an attempt to initiate a code of conduct that brings forth issues of governance, transparency and process of accountability, in the voluntary sector.

The attempt encountered resistance from large sections of the voluntary sector because of its non-participatory nature. The voluntary organizations had then committed themselves to come together and evolve their own norms through a participatory manner. However, even today, voluntary organizations have remained largely unregulated.

Over the last 10 years of its existence Paryavaran Mitra has struggled to make the instrument of Environmental Public Hearing (EPH) an effective tool to negotiate, prevent the negative impact of unplanned, short sighted and sometimes unethical practices of industry. In its early years Paryavaran Mitra after attending some 20 EPHs approached the Gujarat High Court and obtained a land mark judgment (in the case of Centre for Social Justice Vs Union of India SCA 8529/1999) that enhanced public participation.

Being part of the voluntary sector which is public space Paryavaran Mitra believes in transparency and accountability of individuals and organizations of the sector to its stakeholders. The test of accountability lies in actions taken by public agencies to implement it and requires mechanisms to monitor and assess the actions taken. Corrective actions taken in light of stakeholder feedback can be sure that accountability exists.

By definition a Public Hearing is a hearing formally announced and convened to afford any person who has an interest in the organization or affected by its actions as an opportunity to be heard. Paryavaran Mitra seeks to use the procedure adopted in an Environmental Public Hearing Since 1997 obtaining an Environmental Clearance has become mandatory for industries before implementing large industrial projects.

Assuming the metaphor of an Environmental Public Hearing, Paryavaran Mitra conducted its own public hearing opening up to its stakeholders on the parameters of transparency and accountability. Following is the case study of this initiative by the organization.

  • What was the case?

A voluntary sector, which is responsive to the needs of the society, is democratic and transparent in its functioning and accountable to all concerned. It is important to build the credibility of the voluntary sector through creation and promotion of norms of good governance and public disclosure.

Voluntary Organizations (Voluntary organizations) have raised issues of accountability of the State to its citizens and have demanded transparency in the functioning of the Government. The Right to Information to the citizens, more efficient utilization of public resources through effective implementation of programs, minimization if not eradication of corruption, sensitivity to the needs of poor, the marginalized etc. have long been the demands of Voluntary organizations. The voluntary sector has for long played this role. Now similar accusations are being levied against Voluntary organizations and the public is demanding transparency and accountability of Voluntary organizations also. Moreover, over the past several years there has been an exponential growth in the number of Voluntary organizations operating across the entire spectrum of development activity of the country. Along with an increased funding by government, donor agencies and the corporate sector, negative reports on the working of some Voluntary organizations have very much started coming in. This has unfortunately resulted in the erosion of the credibility of entire sector. The failure of present regulatory mechanisms and the conspicuous absence of any alternative plausible framework to ensure accountability have compounded the problem. There is therefore a felt need for an objective public mechanism for the evaluation of Voluntary organizations. Such a mechanism needs to emerge from within the sector to understand its needs so that it is acceptable to it. This can only be through a self-regulatory mechanism evolved by the sector that will meet the requirement of accountability and transparency demanded of it. Good governance standards even of Voluntary organizations therefore are the requirement of the day.

Paryavaran Mitra has come to believe that the principle behind the Public Hearing as an accountability mechanism need not necessarily be for industries as mandated but also adopted by institutions that belong to the public space. Therefore in order to highlight its work over the last 10 years and subject itself to accountability Paryavaran Mitra organized a Public Hearing on itself before its stakeholders. In this process it seeked to draw a mandate for the future from its stakeholders.

  • Strategy & procedure

Since it was novel initiative in the arena of public accountability of voluntary organizations, it was important that this public hearing adhered to the standards of EPH. It was important that the standards for ensuring transparency and accountability in an EPH were set as benchmarks for this event if EPH was taken as a metaphor. It was important to ensure that our compliance with the norms of a public consultation event was a step ahead or equivalent to the norms observed in the EPH, but not lower.

The preparation for the event was done on the following aspects:

  1. The principles of the event: The team had to decide upon certain principles for itself, based on which it would conduct the event, be it transparency, accountability or participation. The design of the event and the process would reflect these principles.

  1. Design of the event: The design of the event had to ensure that the information was presented in such a way that it made scope for people to question and critique, it had to ensure participation of people and provide appropriate scope to the jury members to give their opinions or verdict.

  1. Complying with the norms of EPH: An important task was to detail what would be done before, during and post the event that will mark this event as complying with the norms of an EPH. Only than could we achieve the benchmark of a mandated public consultation.

  1. Presenting the information: Firstly to decide what information would be subjected for public scrutiny and which would be not. The next designing issue was to segregate and present the information in such a way that it was understandable to the invited stakeholders and was comprehensive. This was the most important indicator of being an accountable and transparent system.

The information was presented in the form of a document which was collation of work done by Paryavaran Mitra over the past 10 years. The document was organized in three parts:

 

Title

Contents

Part I About the Organization Introduction, Goal, Objectives and Coverage, Structure, Internal Systems, Staffing and Personnel, Governance, Accounts, Audit and Financial system
Part II Details of Programs Consolidated data on Paryavaran Mitra’s activities over the last 10 years:

1. Environmental Public Hearings

2. Clean Development Mechanism

3. Right To Information

4. Public AwarenessPart IIIFinancial InformationParyavaran Mitra’s Expenditure over the last 10 years

5. Constituting the jury for the event: It was decided that the jury members should constitute representatives of all stakeholder groups- corporate, government, academics and NGOs. This would make the jury appropriately representative and would lend credibility to the process.

Which individuals would be selected from the stakeholder groups was decided based on certain criteria, such as, what has been the level of engagement with them and what impact their presence will have on this public hearing as well as on such other future events. As very important criteria, the relationship of selected jury members with Paryavaran Mitra was also articulated, in terms of services/ support that the two have exchanged with each other. Individuals to be invited as jury members was first listed who were than selected against the mentioned criteria. The list of jury members who presided over the event is given below:

S.No.

Name

Relationship with Paryavaran Mitra and expected role as jury member

1 Mr. Shailesh Patwari

Chairperson, Naroda Enviro Projects Limited (NEPL)

Mr. Patwari has been a part of several Paryavaran Mitra’s forums and has voluntarily contributed to newsletter subscriptions. He has been a key speaker in one of Paryavaran Mitra’s events and has been involved in the Kharicut Canal and Sabarmati Stakeholder Forum. As a member of the jury Mr. Patwari was expected to bring in the perspective of the industry to evaluate Paryavaran Mitra’s contribution in the last 10 years

Mr. RN Das

Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), (RTI Act)

GujaratThe CIC and Paryavaran Mitra share a symbiotic relationship in strengthening implementation of provisions of the RTI Act, making it more effective. The CIC has quasi judicial powers and according to Sec 4-RTI Act. Suo Motu disclosure is mandatory for public institutions and the CIC has a role in ensuring this happens. Using RTI Act to contribute to the strengthen implementation of the Environment Protection Act and the RTI Act itself

Dr. SK Nanda

Principal Secretary, Department of Environment and Forests (DoEF)

State level policy making is one of the key aspects of the work of DoEF and Paryavaran Mitra has always made efforts to help strengthen environment related policy in the state. Does Paryavaran Mitra in its activities contribute towards environmental protection in the state? Paryavaran Mitra expected Mr. Nanda to evaluate it from that perspective.

Ms. Neeta Hardikar

Trustee, Area Networking And Development Initiatives (ANANDI)

Anandi is one of the many NGOs that has been a service user of Paryavaran Mitra as an enviro-legal resource in their projects. Anandi is one such substantial user of Paryavaran Mitra’s services in its many initiatives. As a user of Paryavaran Mitra’s services Ms. Hardikar was expected to judge whether Paryavaran Mitra’s services are of good quality, timely and effective5

Dr. Sudarshan Iyengar
Vice Chancellor, Gujarat VidyapithThe representative of an institution which has impacted the institutional and educational arena in the state from a Gandhian Philosophy and practice. Paryavaran Mitra offers a course regularly in Vidyapith to add to students’ environmental perspectives. Dr. Iyengar was expected to bring in the perspective from an academic framework.

Following is the process of Public Hearing from the preparation to the follow-up stage:

The Public Hearing on Paryavaran Mitra was a half day event from 10 am to 1 pm held on April 14 (Ambedkar Jayanthi). Paryavaran Mitra announced the event in its bi-monthly newsletter and through invitation letters distributed to more than 1500 of its stakeholders.

The process is divided in 3 parts- Before the event, The Event, and After the Event.

Following was the half-day schedule of the Public Hearing.

09:30 – 10:00 hrs

Registration

10:00 – 10:15 hrs

10.15 – 10.45 hrs

10.45 – 11.00 hrs

11.00 – 12.30 hrs

12:30 – 1:00 hrs

Welcome Address and Opening Remarks: Mr. Gagan Sethi, Founder Member, Janvikas

Presentation on Paryavaran Mitra’s Impact Vs. Expenditure in the last 10 years : Mr. Mahesh Pandya, Team Leader, Paryavaran Mitra

Experience sharing: Paralegals working with Paryavaran Mitra

Open Forum (Public)

Summing up and the way forward: Members of the Jury

Vote of Thanks: Vijay Parmar, CEO-Janvikas

I. Before the event

Partnership with Center for Governance Studies (CGS)

CGS, a joint collaboration of Janvikas, Ahmedabad and Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI), Ahmedabad, supported Paryavaran Mitra in conducting the public hearing.

The main objective of CGS is benchmarking and improving the governance standards in voluntary organizations. Towards this objective it uses various methodologies for awareness, concept building and supporting organizations to better their governance systems.

CGS supported Paryavaran Mitra in this process by helping them identify which information to make public, develop the formats in which to collate the information and analyzing them, and also in designing the event. A representative of CGS was engaged with the team in doing the above.

Drawing from its mandate, CGS intervened in this process with the objective to experiment with public hearing as a tool for enhancing accountability and transparency among voluntary organizations. In its endeavor to address these two very important issues in the arena of governance, CGS worked in this process to look at the effectiveness of this tool as well as the challenges it could possibly bring up.

A note on the role of CGS in this public hearing is annexed.

Issuing Public Notice

  • An announcement was printed in the bimonthly newsletter “Paryavaran Mitra” and sent to 2200 of its stakeholders (1500 by post and the rest by email) a month in advance of the date of the hearing
  • Invitation letters were sent to more than 1500 of its stakeholders
  • Paryavaran Mitra handed out a document containing detailed report of its activities prior to the public hearing to all concerned.
  • This document was made available to all members of the jury well before the event so that they were apprised of it before the Public Hearing.
  • A file of Annexures to the information furnished in the document summary was kept with a panel of jury members.
  • Supporting documents of data presented in the document were made available on request.

2. During the Event

  • A presentation was made by Mr. Mahesh Pandya before opening the forum to audience for questions.
  • After the presentation and during Question Time questions were raised by the participants or given in writing by the audience on a piece of paper
  • Each session was moderated by the jury member
  • The participants raised questions, complaints and suggestions to Paryavaran Mitra as well as the jury members. There were questions and suggestions to Paryavaran Mitra regarding their functional areas of work, what more could they take up in those areas and what did they do pertaining to certain issues in the past.

As two of the jury members were government officers, many people used the platform to present their questions and grievances of their individual cases as well as of the cases of public interest.

3. After the Hearing

Questions that were not addressed within the time limit were recorded, answered and uploaded onto Paryavaran Mitra’s website soon after the event or posted to the stakeholder. The entire process has been documented in the organization.

  • Impact & outcome
  • At the moment, the public hearing having concluded a month back, the most visible outcome is that of setting precedence in the area of transparency of voluntary organizations and setting a benchmark for proactive disclosure, as many people gave their feedback that this was an effort worth the cause. It did set some people thinking about doing the process for their respective organizations.

  • Internally for Paryavaran Mitra, a very concrete outcome was consolidation of information of its work over last ten years. In preparation for this event, a lot of information was collated by the team and was put in a framework.

This process also threw up a few areas to be worked on in future for the team of Paryavaran Mitra.

  • Social, economic and ecological gains

The challenge for Paryavaran Mitra is now how to translate outcomes of this public hearing into action in the future, both internally and outside.

The challenge for the Center for Governance Studies (CGS) is to build on this tool of public hearing that can be adapted by various voluntary organizations, considering their diversity.

  • Socio- Economic-Ecological Gains

Social Benefits: This event set the ball rolling for other voluntary organizations to follow the suit and proactively disclose their information, hence becoming transparent and accountable to the public. This step also helped to pose trust in the voluntary organizations and it is hoped that ore of similar efforts will help bring them credibility.


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