The cynicism we hear so often about the RTI Act being ineffective, is thankfully almost always countered by an effective use of this transparency law by citizens, for the larger public good.
One such recent example is that of compelling the union health ministry to disclose information on designated COVID-19 hospitals and treatment centers across the country, so as to help people quickly identify hospitals if they have to rush their near and dear ones, who may show symptoms of this deadly pandemic.
Venkatesh Nayak, RTI research scholar and programme coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), decided to take up this critical issue because he stated that, ``After learning from media reports and friends that COVID infected people were having difficulties finding the locations of the designated COVID hospitals, I rummaged through ministry of health and family welfare (MOHFW)'s website and its newly set up COVID resource page for a consolidated list of such hospitals. I found none.’’
So, he filed an RTI Application under Section 7 of the RTI Act as, it is information that directly concerns the life and liberty of individuals across the country and hence must be given within 48 hours. He requested that the information he asked for be uploaded on the MoHFW website within 48 hours of receipt of his request.
The details which Nayak wanted uploaded on the website were:
1) The district-wise number of hospitals and healthcare facilities called by any other name, designated as COVID-19 treatment centers as on date;
2) The postal addresses and telephone numbers of the hospitals and healthcare facilities referred to above;
3) The criteria applied for determining whether or not a hospital or a healthcare facility should be designated as a COVID- 19 treatment center;
4) The district-wise names of hospitals and health care facilities whose designation as COVID-19 treatment centres has been withdrawn as on date; and
5) The reasons for withdrawing the designation of every hospital and health care facility referred to at para no. 4 above.
Quite predictably, the game of passing the buck began in right earnest; MoHFW's Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) transferred the RTI application to the directorate general of health services (DGHS) and the Indian council for medical research (ICMR). Neither of the public authorities sent Nayak any reply.
States Nayak, ``Six days later, DGHS transferred the RTI application back to the hospital section of MoHFW. A week later the CPIO of the hospital section transferred the RTI application to the PIOs of Safdarjung and Ram Manohar Lohia hospitals and Lady Hardinge Medical College (LHMC) and Associated Hospitals in Delhi. Another week later the PIO of LHMC sent the first reply to my RTI application directing me to look up MoHFW's website for the list of central institutions designated as COVID hospitals! He also stated that other information specified in the RTI application was not available with him.’’
Nayak again sent a complaint on 20th May to the CIC, stating that his RTI application was being treated like a ping pong ball and information given to him from different sources was confusing. He wrote to the CIC that: ``The Press Information Bureau website uploaded an article written by the Union minister for information and broadcasting and environment and forests on 5 May 2020 where he mentioned the existence of at least 700 dedicated COVID hospitals and treatment centres.
`` Next, I cited the record of the gist of the conversation of the Union minister for health and family welfare with representatives of the government of punjab- also uploaded on the PIB website on 13 May 2020 where the number of such facilities had grown considerably.
The minister is reported to have said, "as of now 900 dedicated COVID hospitals with 1,79,882 beds (Isolation beds- 1,60,610 and ICU beds- 19,272) and 2,040 dedicated COVID health centres with 1,29,689 beds (isolation beds- 1,19,340 and ICU beds- 10,349) along with 8,708 quarantine centres and 5,577 COVID care centres with 4,93,101 beds are now available to combat COVID-19 in the country."
So he argued to the CIC that neither minister could have mentioned these aggregate figures unless there was a list of such hospitals and treatment centres available with the respondent public authorities, particularly, the MoHF.’’
CIC's Advisory to MoHFW
The CIC conducted the hearing on 1 June 2020 through a WhatsApp call. Five CPIOs representing all the respondent public authorities including the hospitals to which Nayak’s RTI application was transferred, were also present. All of them denied that their units had a comprehensive list of hospitals and treatment centres designated for the purpose of treating COVID-19 infected patients. They pleaded ignorance about the source of information that the two union ministers mentioned in their write-up and meetings.
Expressing its displeasure at this state of affairs, the CIC advised MoHFW as follows:
"...the commission advises the secretary, M/o H&FW to designate an officer of an appropriate seniority as a nodal officer to examine the matter and suo motu disclose the information sought in the RTI application on the website of the Public Authority within a period of 15 days from the date of receipt of this order in the larger public interest."
Within ten days of the CIC's advisory, MoHFW has issued an order appointing Saranga Dhar Nayak, deputy secretary in the ministry (and also a designated first appellate authority under the RTI Act) on 15th June.
Today, it has a lot of information on its website except the crucial one of guiding people to the appropriate COVID-19 hospitals and treatment centres. Let’s hope the nodal officer does the needful and fast! He was supposed to have uploaded today – that is, 25th June.
(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)