Information on COVID-19 Is by Far the Largest Public Interest Issue but Govt Routinely Stonewalls RTI Queries
Ever since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, an array of information has been sought under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, from users and activists across the country. They are demanding transparency in various aspects of COVID-19 management, administration and dispersal of vaccines—like the constitution of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC), the nodal agency, which coordinates with states; details of the vaccine rollout; the security of the co-win app, essential for your vaccination appointment; the finalisation of pricing of vaccines; safety and clearances of vaccines, details of export of vaccines and dispersal in the domestic market and so on. To date, the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW) and related public authorities have declined most of the information.
In what can be safely termed as the biggest national secret of a public issue of epic proportions where each Indian needs to know the facts that directly affect him or her, public authorities, particularly MoHFW, is warding off most requisitions under RTI. The common reply that seems to be mechanically doled out is, “information sought is exempted under Section 8 (1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005 as this may prejudicially affect the strategic, scientific and economic interest of the State. As such no information can be provided.”
One of the latest RTI applications was filed by Aniket Gaurav, member of the the Legal Squad organisation. He sought information on whether any ministry under the government of India (GoI) is maintaining the records of the number of people who tested positive for coronavirus, even though they have already received one or more doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. 
His RTI application sought details on “the number of people who tested positive after the first dose as well as after the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine till date; out of the total number of people who tested positive after the first dose as well as the second dose of the vaccine till date, a) the number of people who got infected but had a mild or moderate form of the disease b) the number of people who got infected but suffered from a severe form of the disease.”
The reply he got from the MoHFW was, “Health being a state subject this cell/office i.e COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Cell (CVAC) of the MoHFW does not have such specific data. However, for statistics/data as available you may visit Ministry of Health & Family Welfare’s website or Arogya Setu App (refer link or `mygov.In/COVID-19’ or `’.’’ 
RTI applicant Mr Gaurav states that, while none of these links or apps has any relevant information, “Ministry of Health said that it does not have such specific data but yesterday in the press briefing they came out with some data. While the ministry replied to me under RTI that health is a state subject, then how come they suddenly gave selective information at the press briefing? This is rather strange and unjust.’’
Puducherry-based Saurav Das, journalist and transparency activist, who has filed a series of RTI applications related to COVID-19 since the past several months, has been denied information without exception. 
For example, one of his RTI applications was addressed to MoHFW from which he sought details on its COVID vaccine administration cell. His RTI application requisitioned the exact dates on which the expert group has met till date; certified true copies of detailed agenda of meetings till date;  certified true copies of presentations made before the group and detailed information about each of them;  the certified true copies of minutes of meeting of each and every meeting that has been held till date ; a certified true copy of notification or office order by which the group was formed;  a certified true copy of the list of names and designation of every person of the group; certified true copies of each and every file noting and correspondence related to the formation of the group and certified true copies of each and every noting and correspondence related to the presentations made at each meeting;  details of every meeting in which the matter of National Health lD was discussed and; all file notings, correspondences, internal communications, minutes and memos relating to them. 
The reply from the CPIO of the ministry parroted the same exemption clause under the RTI Act. That, “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.’’
RTI research scholar Venkatesh Nayak has also persistently filed RTI applications regarding the export commitments of the COVID-19 vaccines to various countries; the vaccine purchase agreements with various states in the domestic market and; on the setting of and the working of the COVID Pandemic Joint Monitoring Group (JVG). 
In fact, Mr Nayak, had filed an RTI application in April 2020 to the MoHFW, seeking information, including the district-wise number of hospitals and healthcare facilities designated as COVID-19 treatment centres and the postal addresses and telephone numbers of such facilities. His RTI application was pushed around from one public authority to another.
He filed a second appeal with the information commission. In July 2020, chief central information commissioner CIC Bimal Julka had given a stern order and advised the MoHFW to appoint a nodal officer to put up all details on the website in a chronological manner. 
He rightly observed in the order, “It is well recognised that the impact of COVID-19 pandemic will be far reaching and that all the stakeholders need to be cognizant of the importance of proper data and record management. Such records could also be useful for research and educational institutions involved in tracing the disease, mapping and analysing the pathogens genome to develop vaccines that requires records and data accuracy. Sound records management is more important than ever before with governments initiating unprecedented steps to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.” 
Stating that Mr Nayak has asked relevant information which must be disseminated, he observed in his order, “keeping in view the facts of the case and the submissions made by all the stakeholders and in the light of the decisions cited above as also the observations made in the previous paragraphs, the Commission observed that very pertinent information pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic situation was sought by the complainant which could not be made available by any of the respondents.’’
He qualified his directive to appoint a nodal officer by stating, “the fact that the application shuttled from one division of the public authority to another indicates that there is a very urgent requirement for notifying a nodal authority in the MoHFW/DGHS to compile, collate and consolidate the information sought in the RTI application and suo motu upload the same on the website of the public authority.’’
Mr Julka went a step further to state that transparency in this vital public issue matter is important even for scientific and academic data. He stated, “there is an immense necessity to evolve a strong, robust and effective documentation mechanism and its continuous updation which will be mutually beneficial not only for the government but also for the scientists, researchers, academicians, historians, law makers, etc for future. Therefore, the Commission advises the secretary, MoHFW 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.’’
However, several months down the line after this order, there has been no attempt to make anything transparent so far, leave alone voluntarily uploading information on the website. Every RTI application is stonewalled, in the name of secrecy! Dangerous for transparency and good governance, isn’t it?
(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”.)
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