At an all-party meeting held on 4 December 2020 about the progress made regarding COVID-19 vaccine administration, prime minister (PM) Narendra Modi announced that healthcare workers, frontline workers and the elderly who are already suffering from co-morbidities will be vaccinated on a priority basis.
The responsibility for the administration of the vaccine across the country lies with the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC), which would go about the job, in consultation with the respective states. It comprises technical experts, senior officials of concerned Central ministries and zonal representatives of states. Which means NEGVAC is the primary decision-making body on all matters relating to COVID-19 vaccine administration across the country. It appears that this expert group comes under the Union ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW).
As per the press information bureau (PIB) release, the expert group deliberated not only on the conceptualisation of the vaccine but also implementation on the mechanisms for the creation of a digital infrastructure for inventory management and delivery mechanism of the vaccine, including tracking of the vaccination process with particular focus on the last mile delivery.
They discussed broad parameters guiding the selection of COVID-19 vaccine candidates for the country and sought inputs from the standing technical sub-committee of national technical advisory group on immunisation (NTAGI).
Being a public interest issue of great importance, all the information regarding NEGVAC’s meetings, decisions and implementation strategy should be in the public domain as per suo motu disclosures under Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. However, the website of the MoHFW has not uploaded any such information. Shockingly, an RTI application requesting copies of such details was thwarted by the ministry. The reason given was that it does not know who holds the records and papers relating to the NEGVAC’s working!
Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of access to information programme and RTI research scholar, filed an online RTI application seeking the following details from the health ministry:
"I. Apropos the press release issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on 12/08/2020 (attached) and displayed on the website of the Press Information Bureau of India, please provide access to the information described immediately below:
1) A legible copy of the office order, circular or memorandum or notification or any other instrument by which the national expert group on vaccine administration for COVID-19 has been constituted,
2) The name and designation, if any, of the chairperson and every member of the said expert group,
3) A legible copy of every official record containing the terms of reference of the said expert group,
4) A legible copy of all file notings, paper-based and email correspondence relating to the information described at sub-para nos. (1), (2) and (3) above,
5) The exact dates on which the said expert group has held meetings till date,
6) A legible copy of the detailed agenda circulated in advance of every meeting of the said expert group held till date,
7) A legible copy of all materials including presentations placed before the members of the said expert group in relation to every meeting held till date,
8) A legible copy of the minutes of every meeting of the said expert group held till date,
9) A legible copy of all official records including paper-based and electronic records comprising any assistance, advice or communication received from any authority in the ministry of external affairs for the consideration of the said expert group. (Please note – this is my addition: This information was asked for as the press release of the PIB mentioned NEGVAC’s engagement with international players. Therefore this RTI application was forwarded to the ministry of external affairs (MEA),
10) The name and designation of the officers who have been tasked to provide secretarial assistance to the said expert group,
11) The amount of sitting fees and every other remuneration or allowances payable to the chairperson and every member of the said expert group, and
12) The amount of sitting fees and every other remuneration or allowances actually paid to the chairperson and every member of the said expert group, till date.
II. Form of access to information sought: Kindly upload all the information described above on your official website and inform me of the respective URLs by email.
III. Kindly also note, all the information described above is in the form of information that is required to be disclosed suo motu in accordance with various clauses of Section 4(1) of the RTI Act. As I have not been able to find such information on the official website of the ministry of health and family welfare or in the public domain beyond the PIB release (attached), I am constrained to make this formal request for information."
The central public information officer (CPIO) of MoHFW transferred the RTI application to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Union ministry of external affairs (MEA). In the reply, the CPIO of the immunisation section of MoHFW sent a copy of the records containing the composition of NEGVAC and its terms of reference free of charge. In his reply, the CPIO also admitted that the department of health and family welfare serviced NEGVAC. Strangely, the CPIO stated that information like email correspondence, file notings, minutes of meetings and so on are not 'information' as defined in Section 2(f) of the RTI Act.
Mr Nayak says that perplexed by the CPIO's reply that copies of records sought under several queries in the RTI application did not even qualify to be labelled "information," he filed a first appeal, online. The first appellate authority (FAA) dismissed the first appeal stating that the CPIO, N Kutumba Rao, undersecretary, ministry of health & family welfare has informed the first appellate authority that he does not have the information sought in the RTI application and he does not have any knowledge of any other CPIO who could provide the information!
Mr Nayak rues: “PM Modi had stated in the December 4 all-party meeting that people's participation is required in the upcoming vaccine administration exercise also. How can people's meaningful participation be ensured if the MoHFW does not place in the public domain the details of NEGVAC's working? There is a statutory requirement of proactive information disclosure under Section 4(1)(c) and 4(1)(d) of the RTI Act about NEGVAC's working. MoHFW and other public authorities involved in the vaccination roll out plan have a statutory duty to make all facts and figures public along with the underlying reasoning for their decisions and actions under these provisions.’’
The ICMR and the MEA to whom the RTI applications were forwarded by the health ministry’s CPIO, respectively, stated that information is not available and that it comes under the Section 8 restrictions to provide information.
The reason why this information merits public disclosure in the public domain:
• Because 30 crore people might receive the COVID-19 vaccine during the 1st phase.
• Because para no. (x) of the terms of reference of NEGVAC supplied under the RTI Act includes: "Providing guidance on creating awareness and disseminating information." NEGVAC also has this duty of proactive information disclosure.
While Mr Nayak is filing a second appeal with the central information commission (CIC), it is indeed, distressing that there is no transparency in a matter of grave national importance, unprecedented in the past 100 years!
(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”.)