So, what’s the major concern of citizens today, against the backdrop of a national lockdown where the entire country of 1.3 billion has been asked to stay indoors for three weeks, to counter the spread of the Corona virus? Obviously, information! News, views and videos through television media, social media and e-newspapers are aplenty, with a seasoning of fake news thrown in. But what about the duty of public authorities, which come under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and are bound by suo motu disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act? This section ensures that authentic information, in real time, is available to citizens everyday as the remain locked in their homes with the hashtag #stayhomestaysafe going viral.
We are talking about public authorities that are directly connected with the present emergency, such as police departments, the collectorates, the divisional commisisonerates, the municipal corporations, the public health departments and so on. At the local and district level, these are important centres of information for people. The onus of disseminating accurate information lies on them.
So, what kind of information does a citizen look for as she lives life within the four walls of her house?
Let’s take Pune as an example of what every town, city or state is undergoing. The Pune Municipal Corporation announced reduction in PMPML public transport buses to 1000. While this is fine, people are unclear about which routes they are plying on, what time and at what intervals. How was the choice of bus routes decided?
It is mandatory under Section 4 of the RTI Act for the http://pmc.gov.in
websites to upload this basic information so at the click of the mouse the user can find out whether he or she can get this facility near her home and for the destination she or he wants to go?
Remember, the buses are mainly for those who are part of the essential services, such as banks, government employees, media, municipal workers and police personnel who are exempted from the lockdown. In Mumbai, they are let into the buses only on showing their identity cards. With other means of transport locked down, information about routes and schedules becomes crucial when the frequency has been drastically cut.
However, no such information has been put up in the public domain. RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar has written about this to Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray. He says, “Presently the buses which have been allowed to ply are stationed at various depots and it benefits no one. Instead, they should be strategically stationed at public hospitals, water supply centres, and at dedicated bus stops conveniently for the conservancy staff of the city. This would make this service more useful and relevant. The two websites should put that up on the home page with graphics, listing and helpline numbers.’’
This is indeed true! Often, government officials such as the Pune Collector disseminate urgent government circulars relating to various rules and regulations applicable to citizens in the time of coronavirus through social media such Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. While this is good, it is just as important to upload them on official websites.
Pune collector Naval Kishore Ram’s appeal to the public to stay safe at homes is doing the rounds of social media, Pune collectorate’s website (www.pune.nic.in
) has no such circulars or decisions uploaded in real time. I understand that only helpline numbers have been put up.
There is no information on the life-threatening pandemic on any of these official websites. Social media surely cannot be a substitute for official websites – it can only be a means of fast dissemination of information.
Let’s look at the Pune Police website, http://punepolice.in
. The Pune Police, like their counterparts all over the country have occasionally used their baton even on persons stepping out for exempted work.
But then, Pune has had cases of people with a mandatory self-quarantine stamp stepping out and endangering others. They have had to be reprimanded. Sometimes the cops have had to take action against housing society office bearers for ill-treating those who under self-quarantine in their homes. All this is positive and necessary.
The Pune Police has also come up with an effective form to apply for permission to step out. All you have to do is send WhatsApp on four specific mobile numbers circulated by the Pune Police through WhatsApp. They ensure a prompt reply to the WhatsApp request. But again, why is this e-form is not available on the Pune Police website. Shouldn’t it be available on the official website too?
It would also be helpful to citizens of the police website (http://punepolice.in
) on the number of people who have been quarantined; action taken against those who defied quarantine; number of permissions granted for citizens to come out of their homes and helpline numbers. This is especially important for senior citizens who are a significant portion of Pune’s population and may need help during medical or social emergencies. Many of them live by themselves as their children are abroad.
But sorry, the latest press release on the Pune Police website is about an accident in which a senior citizen woman was injured due to a reckless two-wheeler rider. But all means upload such news, but not at the expense of ignoring important information during a pandemic required by citizens confined at home. After all, not everybody is on social media, but they do look for official websites.
This disdain or lack of understanding about disclosure of information and transparency, I presume is endemic. Informing people about decisions and regulations relating to the coronavirus pandemic are mandatory under Section 4 of the RTI Act and under Section 7of the RTI Act and the RTI applicant can file an RTI application and has the right to get it within 48 hours.
Government departments are also working with skeletal staff, but if private companies have been exhorted to work from home and complete official filings online during the lockdown, surely the relevant public information officers could be asked to upload all relevant information on official websites on a daily basis.
Surely this would not require a new directive by the department of personnel and training (DoPT) or the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) to be implemented?
(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”