Much ink has flown on the COVID-19 related right to information (RTI) applications where several ministries and Central and state public authorities have used the exemption clauses under Section 8 of the RTI Act for stonewalling the queries. Now, the Madras High Court, in its order last week, has sent a sharp and incisive message to such chronic dodgers.
The Madras High Court has ordered the central information commission (CIC) to set up a special bench for hearing COVID-19 related matters, to work daily for at least three to four days on them and dispose them as per the timeline, particularly for RTI applications seeking information under Section 7 (1) of the RTI Act. The timeline given for this is within 48 hours. It has also ordered the CIC as well as all state information commissions (SICs) to explore "taking up matters on the virtual mode upon indicating an e-filing system.’’
It may be reiterated that, as per Section 7 (1) of the RTI Act, "information sought for concerns the life or liberty of a person, shall be provided within forty-eight hours of the receipt of the request.’’
Puducherry-based journalist and transparency activist Saurav Das, in his petition, submitted that the CIC, in its order of 22 April 2020 had recognised the need to streamline the mechanism for accepting and disposing RTI requests under Section 7 (1).
It had directed in that order that, “Due to the on-going pandemic of coronavirus in the country and the prevalent lockdown, the Commission finds it appropriate to highlight the issue of Sec 7(1) implementation by citizens; more so, when postal receipt of RTI applications are minimal, in such situations all public authorities should encourage RTI applications through e-mail in case of life and liberty matter. A unique e-mail id can be created by the central public information officers (CPIOs) in this regard and reflected in their respective websites. A method of online acceptance of RTI fees also has to be thought of in this regard. The deputy registrar is directed to circulate this order widely to the public authorities related to the registry.”
However, predictably, nothing moved.
Mr Das had further argued that his RTI applications, which are filed under Section 7 (1), are treated like RTI applications under Section 6(3) (in which the public information officer -- PIO -- can take 30 days and he also can take up to five days to transfer the RTI to another PIO, if the information does not relate to the former).
Thus, he says, by taking so much time, it defeats the very purpose of the 48-hour deadline set under Section 7 (1). Hence, he submitted in his petition, that a special bench may be constituted at the CIC level for RTI applications relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and filed under Section 7 (1).
He also requested that the department of personnel and training (DoPT) which is the central administrative authority for the RTI Act to direct the CIC to implement the 48-hour deadline information dissemination to all information commissions across the country.
Mr Das also brought to the notice of the court that "there is no time period fixed in the Act for the First Appellate Authority (FAA) or the Information Commissions to dispose of appeals arising out of applications concerning life or liberty. Therefore, the specific timeline of 48-hours is deemed redundant, thereby causing severe hardship to citizens who are in urgent need of such information. This strikes at the root of Article 21 of the Constitution. It is imperative that guidelines be framed to ensure that such applications and appeals are disposed of in the most timely manner with most urgency.’’
This order is of vital significance and is necessary in the present pandemic as an applicant may seek information on the availability of beds, testing parameters, health facilities, availability of emergency medical services, the demarcation of containment zones, vaccination distribution or even clarifications relating to lock-down guidelines– all such information concerns life or liberty.
Mr Das appealed in his petition that, "due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, there are innumerable hardships faced by the applicants in not only filing the applications but also obtaining an efficacious remedy under the Act.
"Time is of the essence under the RTI Act, and even more so during the current COVID-19 pandemic, as any delay in the information sought for, could have a detrimental impact on public health and the lives of people. It is reiterated that such cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic fall under life and liberty and it is imperative that they are dealt with expeditiously.”
“Additionally, it is also pertinent to note that on various occasions, information sought by migrant workers during the migrant crisis was severely delayed or failed to be furnished. A delay in furnishing vital information sought in such cases, which also fall within the ambit of life or liberty, render the Act completely useless. I submit that a delay in furnishing such information to the applicant may not only render the information infructuous, but also risks compromising the very spirit of the legislation.’’
The petition also sought a directive from the Madras High Court to direct the DoPT and the Tamil Nadu government to also dispose the complaints filed under Section 18 pertaining to complaints by RTI applicants if PIOs or appellate authorities fail to provide information; to dispose the second appeals filed under Section 19(3) within the mandatory 90 days as well as first and second appeals/complaints under Section 7 (1).
As the pandemic gets worse by the day, the anxiety in the citizens’ minds to have public information on various aspects of the COVID-19 handling by the government, is but natural, besides being their right under the RTI Act!
( 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”.)