In a major victory for citizens, the legal department of the central information commission (CIC) has referred to an official circular dating back to 2016, to communicate that the CIC in appeals arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic, should accord precedence, for hearing.
Quoting its own circular dated 22 July 2016, the CIC in its 6 May 2021 circular states, “The circular takes care of exigencies arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic.’’ The earlier 22 July 2016 circular specifies that “The commission in a particular matter may decide to accord precedence depending on the facts and circumstance of the cases.’’
This applies to all state information commissions (SICs) too.
Another important aspect of the CIC circular of 6th May is that, “Appellants or complainants desirous of early hearings can approach the concerned registry of this Commission in this regard.”
So, RTI applicants, who have filed their second appeals related to COVID-19, can jump the queue and directly approach the registrar of the CIC for an early hearing.
Journalist and transparency activist, Saurav Das, whose petition in the Madras High Court (HC), to prioritise second appeals related to COVID-19 triggered this citizen-friendly motion, tweeted, “In a major victory for transparency, the Central Information Commission has started hearing pandemic-related RTI cases on priority. This, after Madras HC's recommendation, on my petition. Lots of crucial info on COVID was being denied by the Centre. Not anymore!’’
The Madras HC ordered the 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 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.”
The order was given on 28 April 2021.
In fact, Mr Das had filed RTI applications related to COVID-19 under Section 7 (1) of the RTI Act pointing out that information regarding the pandemic must be time bound. However, the CIC was not only failing to prioritise such applications but at the first appellate authority (FAA) level too, the first appeals had been languishing for 45 days.
Mr Das had rightly argued in the court that, “Time is of the essence under the RTI Act, and even more so during the current COVID-19 pandemic, as any delay in procuring the information sought 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 the right to life and liberty and it is imperative that they are dealt with expeditiously.”
This circular is of utmost importance 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 (which comes under Section 7 (1) of the RTI Act and mandates providing information within 48 hours.
The CPIO has been giving the same reply stating, “the information sought is exempted under Section 8(1)(a) of RTI Act, 2005 as this may prejudicially affect the strategic, scientific and economic interest of the State. As such, no information can be provided.’’
Says Mr Das, “The CIC is indeed taking the circular very seriously and I know of cases which have been prioritised.’’
More power to activists like him and, hopefully, it would lead to some amount of transparency regarding this pandemic which has shown the government in poor light.
(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”.)