In what can be termed as contempt of the Madras High Court order in early May, directing the central information commission (CIC) and state information commissions to spare three to four hours per day on second appeal hearings related to COVID-19, the CIC, after abiding by it for a few weeks, has abandoned the practice.
Saurav Das, journalist and transparency activist whose petition in the Madras High Court had led to the order, has filed a complaint through a letter last week to chief central information commissioner, Yashovardhan Kumar Sinha.
In the letter he says, “As you know, seeing the urgency and the utmost public interest involved in such pandemic related matters, the Madras High Court on my public interest litigation (PIL) had recommended this commission to hear such matters on an urgent basis, for at least three to four hours a day, daily. However, far from three to four hours a day and very far from 'daily' hearings that were recommended, you have now stopped hearing any such cases altogether. Further, no cases are being heard on Fridays every week. From 8th July onwards till 19th July, you will not be hearing any cases, for what looks like a long leave. Leaving those aside, there is nothing stopping this commission from hearing such important and urgent matters before you go on a leave.”
Mr Das in his letter has appealed Mr Sinha to “restart hearing the pandemic related cases on an urgent basis, in the right spirit of the Madras HC’s recommendation; to ensure that such matters continue to be heard by the next senior-most information commissioner of the commission during the time of your long absence, and to ensure that this commission and your kind self, sit for longer hours, as recommended by the commission, to hear such cases that relate to our lives.”
In the meanwhile, former central information commissioner and right to information (RTI) activist Shailesh Gandhi has filed a complaint under Section 18 (1)(f) of the RTI Act with Sumit Mullick, Maharashtra state chief information commissioner (SCIC).
In the complaint, Mr Gandhi says, “It is well known that many RTI applications are being filed with a request that information be provided within 48 hours on matters relating to COVID. In most cases the information is not provided and courts have also suggested that commissions hold urgent hearings on these. It will serve the purpose and relieve the load on public information officers (PIOs) and the commission if such information was displayed and updated every day on the website of the government. I am sure the administration must be getting such reports daily. All that is being requested is, that it be displayed on the website where citizens can access it.”
Mr Gandhi, who is steering the campaign through the RTI Katta, has listed the information related to COVID-19, which must be suo motu uploaded on the websites of the relevant public authorities. This must include…
List of hospitals and available beds (including the number of beds available for the below poverty line (BPL) in charitable hospitals) (with classification -- oxygen beds, non-oxygen beds and ventilator beds).
Stock of various life-saving medicines required in Covid and mucormycosis treatment
Daily distribution of various vaccines to vaccination centres.
Daily availability of various vaccines i.e. Covishield, Covaxin, Sputnik, and Pfizer at all vaccination centres.
Daily hospitals vaccination completed and daily cumulative figures.
Wardwise/village wise data—total population and population vaccinated with percentage.
Total amount from budget allocated funds spent on date and till date.
Details of allocation on purchase of all vaccines on date and till date.
Projected date wise supply vs actual doses supplied on and till date.
Planned Vs supply of vaccines supplied to states.
In 2017, the then SCIC Ratnakar Gaikwad had given a stern order on the complaint of Mr Gandhi regarding opacity in information of public welfare schemes that are directly concerned with the common man.
SCIC Gaikwad had immediately taken cognisance of Mr Gandhi’s complaint. In the order, Mr Gaikwad stated “…the Commission views this lapse on the part of the public authorities with serious concern. It is sad that after a lapse of more than 11 years since the RTI Act came into force, public authorities by and large have shown a lackadaisical attitude towards proactive disclosures as laid down under Section 4 of the Act.”
Mr Gaikwad invoked the following sub-sections of Section 4 of the RTI Act in support of his directive:
“Section 4 (1) (b) of Right to Information Act, 2005 is the heart and soul of the RTI Act, which makes it mandatory for all public authorities to disclose information about 17 aspects of public authorities which, inter alia, covers schemes implemented by public authorities, and list of beneficiaries to be displayed on the websites of the respective public authority.
“So also Section 4(1)(c)(d) mandates that all decisions, administrative/quasi-judicial, taken by public authorities, and material/facts based on which such decisions are taken, must be suo motu communicated to the affected persons forthwith by public authorities. All welfare schemes implemented by the government are obviously covered under the above provisions of the RTI Act. But, unfortunately, no department yet has implemented in letter and spirit the above provisions, with the result that there is hardly any transparency and accountability in the implementation of various welfare schemes implemented by the government.”
The former central information commissioner has requested Mr Mullick to refer to the order and immediately direct the concerned public authorities to proactively upload COVID-19 related information on their websites.
Mr Das, in his letter to the central information commissioner, rues “It is sad and extremely unfortunate, sir, that people have to first rush to the court to enforce their fundamental right to know, then constantly seek urgent hearings in the deliberate absence of an automatic system, and to again write letters to your kind self, reminding you about our rights and seeking to get our fundamental right to information enforced.”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.