Maharashtra Information Commission on the Back Foot over Legal Notice, Begins Online Hearings of RTIs in Right Earnest
While directing all the information commissions in Maharashtra to begin second appeal hearings online from Monday, 15th June, Sumit Mullick, state chief information commissioner (SCIC) himself disposed of 20 second appeals via the use of Google Meet App in a single day, thus keeping up his commitment of starting hearings that were stalled due to the lock-down. While technical problems were faced during these online hearings, leading to intermittent disruptions, Mr Mullick said, the commission is determined to continue with this new normal process.
 
The `Yashodhan’ building of south Mumbai, where Mr Mullick resides, is at present sealed as it has 26 corona positive cases. So he says, "I’m operating from home so wouldn’t be able to tell you the exact number of pending appeals but they were around 60,000 at the last count." So, in what time frame would these pendencies be cleared? 
 
Stated Mr Mullick, "I’m waiting for the three vacancies of information commissioners to be filled up and have requested for three additional information commissioners’ posts so that pending second appeals would be cleared at a faster rate. Efforts are on in that direction."
 
Remember how our story last week on how RTI activists, campaigning through Zoom meetings, against the lethargy of the Maharashtra State Information Commission, choosing to shut information commission offices due to the lockdown, instead of continuing to hear online, the second appeal hearings, pending at a whopping 59,000 at the present compelled the SCIC to commit to begin online hearings from 15th June? In particular, the SCIC reply  to the legal notice sent by activists has indirectly mentioned the Moneylife report of 8th June calling the allegations that it was under a lock-down too as 'false and insensitive statement'. 
 
Rattled by the Moneylife report, Maharashtra’s state chief information commission scrambled to defend itself stating that it was already in action from May, through a reply by its legal cell, to the legal notice sent by RTI activists. It states thus:
 
"We say that regular meetings were held on 5th May, 19th May, 27th May and 2nd June of 2020 to discuss various issues relating to audio- video hearing and about the difficulties faced by / likely to be faced, by staff members in commuting between their place of residence and office premises as Mumbai, BrihanMumbai, Nashik, Konkan, Pune, Aurangabad were placed in the 'Red Zone' in this COVID-19 pandemic. 
 
"Various notifications, restrictions and guidelines issued by Central and State governments under the Epidemic Act and other laws had to be considered while resolving the issues relating to the attendance of staff and audio-visual hearing. 
 
Non-availability of travel facilities during the initial days of lock-down and safety of office staff were prime concerns. We also further say that it was also not possible to start the video conferencing without the office staff attending the office for sorting out and processing the pending appeals.
 
"Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lock-down, the commissions situated in the Red Zones notified by the government would be dealing with only urgent matters which come under the purview of the proviso to Section 7(1) of the RTI Act, 2005, after the applicant has followed the due process as laid down in the said Act. Applicants desirous of filing (urgent second appeals / complaints) should send (he same through email…"
 
However, Mr Mullick said that they did not receive any emails for urgent second appeals or complaints, so online second appeals are being disposed of as per the sequence.
 
The reply further explained that the minutes of the meetings on 5th May, 19th May and 2nd June show that the SCIC was, indeed, serious about functioning during the lock-down. It states:
 
During the 5th May meeting via video conferencing it was discussed that:
1. The commission was to stay closed until 3rd May– now it has extended the lock-down to 19th May.
 
2. Despite this, as per the order of the state government, besides the municipal corporations of Mumbai, Malegaon, PMC and PCMC where 100 % staff is required to work, all other government departments were ordered to have attendance of 33% only. With reference to this order, the SCIC directed the information commissions of Nashik, Nagpur, Aurangabad and Amravati to work with 33% staff. Considering the pandemic situation, other information commissions were equipped enough to take a call as per the situation prevailing in their respective zones. 
 
3. Considering the situation, Mumbai and Pune would be closed till 15th May. Even then, cases pertaining to life and liberty would be heard. Similarly, any emergency works of the administration would be undertaken. And staff would attend only if required; others would work from home.
 
Minutes of meeting of 19th May:  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lock-down, the commissions situated in the Red Zones notified by the government would be dealing with only urgent matters which come under the purview of the proviso to Section 7(1) of the RTI Act, 2005, after the applicant has followed the due process as laid down in the said Act. Applicants desirous of filing (he said Urgent second appeals / complaints should send the same through email to their respective commissions / benches along with the details required in the format given below to enable the commission to take appropriate action accordingly.
 
Minutes of meeting of 2nd June: A meeting under the chairmanship of the chief information commissioner via audio visual conference was held today 2 June 2020. 
 
The following decisions were taken:
1. In view of the order /resolution dated1 June 2020 issued by the government of Maharashtra, and guidelines dated 30 May 2020 issued by the Central government all state information commissions will resume office from Monday, 8 June, 2020 with up to 10 employees.
 
2. Before the commencement of the offices, the commissions should instruct the PWD in their respective cities to a)sanitise the entire office; b)provide a person at the entrance of the building, equipped with sanitizers and thermal thermometer who will screen everyone before entering the premises; c)make arrangements to restrict the number of persons in the elevators to ensure proper social distancing; d)provide sanitizers and thermal thermometers to commissions so that they could also screen their respective visitors independently;
 
3. Regarding disposals of second appeals and complaints, it was decided that initially a)the same should be done online and not through physical presence as it would not only be safe from health point but also convenient for all applicants and also to the public information officer (PIO) and the First Appellate Authority (FAA); b)The applicants who may not have the facility for online hearing approach their respective collector’s office with the notice so that they could be connected with their respective SICs at the designated time. c) Taking into consideration the ongoing pandemic, hearing cases where the PIO and FAA are Corona Warriors, it may not be feasible and practical at present and hence the hearings could immediately commence with pending cases of non-essential services.
 
Nevertheless, it is the push given by citizens that eventually led to the SCIC plunging into action, that would be beneficial for scores of RTI applicants across Maharashtra.
 
(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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    COMMENTS

    bajaj3

    3 weeks ago

    I think his is happening thanks to the push of Monneylife and RTI activists. Great work.

    hamungel

    3 weeks ago

    Good work by Moneylife and RTI Activists.

    Meenal Mamdani

    3 weeks ago

    Hats off to you, Ms Deshmukh. Your persistence managed to move even an immovable object like a bureaucrat.
    Now that people are getting familiar with Zoom and Google meet, may be there is no need to go back to the old way of doing things where the person filing an appeal had to be present in person at the hearing with not just inconvenience for the person concerned but also considerable expense.

    REPLY

    vinitapune

    In Reply to Meenal Mamdani 3 weeks ago

    Thanks Meenal. Actually it is a result of collective efforts by leading RTI activists by campaigning through RTI katta meetings. Yes, you're right - technology should make second appeal hearings more convenient from the comfort of your home!

    RTI Activists Shake SIC of Maharashtra out of Slumber into Starting Second Hearings, Online, from 15th June
    In what can be termed as a major victory for the Right to Information (RTI) activists’ campaign through a series of conferences through Zoom, the Maharashtra state information commission (MSIC), which had gone into hibernation during this lock-down, has finally agreed to conduct second appeal hearings, online, from 15 June 2020. A legal notice sent by the activists to the MSIC proved to be the final trigger that woke up the MSIC to that online technology is the order of the day and it needs to change its gear in that direction and not remain in a locked-down state.
     
    While the judiciary was ably using online hearings during the lock-down, the MSIC had strangely not even considered technology to compensate for the ban on physical visits to its office for second appeal hearings. So deaf was it that even a string of letters by RTI activists across the state to urge it to start online hearings, could not spur it into action.
     
    Finally, a group of RTI activists, across the country, sent a legal notice last week to the MSIC, because of which the commissioner Sumit Mullick has agreed to conduct second hearings online, from the 15th June. The appellants and other related persons would be informed about the date and time of the second appeal hearing by email. For those RTI appellants who do not have the convenience of an online system, the hearing would be pre-arranged by the MSIC at a predetermined time at the district collector’s office.
     
    As per the state government circular of 4th June, 10 staffers would be working for the MSIC from 8th June. Besides following all the safety norms for the employees who come to the office, the MSIC has strictly decided to conduct second appeal hearings, only online, to protect the health of the appellants, public information officers (PIOs) and First Appellate Authorities (FAAs). 
     
    Since several of the PIOs and FAAs are engaged as 'Covid Warriors' and therefore would not be able to be present at second appeal hearings, only those that do not involve such public authorities which have PIOs and FAAs on emergency duty would be held.
     
    The legal notice sent last week by RTI activists Shailesh Gandhi, Vijay Kumbhar, Vinita Deshmukh, Vivek Velankar, Bhaskar Prabhu and Mohammed Afzal was a result of the online RTI Katta meetings held on the 7th, 14th and 21 May 2020. A large number of citizens had participated including the former Central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, former information commissioner of Maharashtra state, Vilas Patil, former principal secretary of Maharashtra general administration department, Mahesh Zagade, former director of RTI cell, Yashada Pralhad Kachare, Lokesh Batra, a Delhi-based RTI activist, Subhash Agarwal, and a Delhi based advocate Divya Jyoti Jayapuriar. 
     
    The RTI Katta, founded by Mr Kumbhar used to be otherwise held at a public garden in Pune but due to the lock-down is now operating through Zoom that enables activists across the country to participate. Concerned over the large number of RTI second appeals/complaints pending before the MSIC, the activists in their legal notice brought to the attention of the MSIC that:
     
    Access to information is a facet of the right to freedom of speech and expression as contained in Article 19(1)(a) and as such it is a fundamental right of the citizens under the Constitution of India.
     
    The challenges occasioned by the outbreak of COVID-19 need to be addressed by preserving the Constitutional commitment of ensuring the citizens’ fundamental right to access information.
     
    Faced with the unprecedented and extraordinary outbreak of a pandemic the Chief Justice of India, judges of Bombay High Court and Delhi High Court have risen to the occasion and adopted the use of VC platforms such as Zoom etc.
     
    The SCIC can facilitate earliest conduct of all hearings through video conferring and come out as a role model in compliance of the directions of the Supreme Court.
     
    The SCIC must give appropriate directives of online hearing to its eight information commissions located at Mumbai, BrihanMumbai, Amravati, Aurangabad, Konkan, Nashik, Nagpur, and Pune as per the provision of Section 15(4) of the RTI Act, 2005.
     
    That Indian courts have been proactive in embracing advancement in technology in judicial proceedings. The Indian judiciary has incorporated information and communication technology (ICT) systems through the e-courts integrated mission mode project (e-courts project) as part of the national e-governance plan (NeGP). The robust infrastructure in place has reduced conventional impediments and legal uncertainty surrounding the use of virtual courts. ICT enabled infrastructure is available across all courts including the district judiciary which constitutes the initial interface of the court system with the citizen. So why not the information commissions?
     
    The Central information commission has been successfully conducting online RTI hearing proceedings through online video conferencing, for over a decade. Recently in the wake of Covid19 the Manipur state information commission has resumed conducting of its hearing proceedings over WhatsApp video as part of its social distancing initiative and to avoid further spread of the coronavirus.
     
    Interestingly, in the meanwhile the Amravati Bench of the MSIC has been conducting its hearing proceedings through online video conferencing platforms. 
     
    Therefore, the activists argued in their letter that, apart from the efforts made by the Amravati Bench of the information commission, an administrative direction needs to come from the office of the chief state information commission, Mumbai, with respect to all the eight benches of the MSIC.
     
    (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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    COMMENTS

    bajaj3

    4 weeks ago

    This is indeed good news, which I welcome at the age of 72 years.
    I live in Malad west, Mumbai 400095 and it would be a great help if I could get some information
    I need to file some applications with the Police.
    Can I also file RTI application on-line?
    and the first appeal, also, on-line.

    Thank you

    glnprasad52

    4 weeks ago

    Really a great achievement. Take for example AP State Information Commission it is in ICU and there is no ventilator, oxygen is in shortage, blood not available for transfusion, and not in slumber. Long coma -No one knows it's fate. It is no one's baby.

    RTI Reveals ‘Missing File’ a Common Ruse in Health Ministry To Save Dubious Pharma Companies
    Last week, the Central Information Commission (CIC) slammed the Directorate General of Health Services (DCGI) for replying under RTI that the file containing a crucial report pertaining to recommendations made by it in 2013 while granting approval for new drugs and clinical trials, which were adopted by its national regulatory authority, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), was missing. Even more brazen is the fact that, under pressure of a notice sent by the CIC, the DCGI had the audacity to finally email the RTI applicant a copy of the report on 11 May, 2020, "which was neither signed nor certified which indicated their malafide conduct."  
     
    CIC Bimal Jhulka, in his order on 26 May, 2020, has directed the DCGI to provide a certified copy of the report within 30 days and "to urgently initiate steps to streamline the process of digitization of records and… to suo motu disclose its reports and other associated documents in the public domain for the benefit of the public at large." And to do so; from time to time. It has also asked this public authority to ensure that “grant of approvals (are made) through a transparent and objective mechanism."
     
    Prashant Reddy, the RTI applicant, way back in May 2018, had  sought a copy of the reports and recommendations of the office order issued by the DCGI on 26 March 2013 and review processes adopted by CDSCO in granting approval for new drugs and clinical trials.
     
    This report, called the Dr T N Mahapatra Committee Report, was a sequel to the comments made by the parliamentary standing committee on health and family welfare, early that year, of dubious practices adopted by DCGI and CDSCO while giving approvals to new drugs, allegedly without proper research and clinical trials.
     
    The CPIO of the DCGI office replied that the report was not readily available and therefore refused to provide information. A first appeal to the first appellate authority also brought in the same response. Thereafter, Reddy filed a second appeal way back in September 2018 and the matter came for hearing, a good one and a half year later, that is as recently as 26 May, 2020!
     
    The second appeal, which interestingly was held through WhatsApp due to the lockdown, had the RTI applicant Prashant Reddy, CPIO RG Singh, the FAA on WhatApp (they had also made written submissions to CIC earlier of their stance) while RK Singh, the legal consultant, CDSCO, appeared in person.
     
    Mr Reddy reiterated that he had sought under RTI, the copy of the Mohapatra Committee Report which was denied to him. He argued that the reason was that, the Mohapatra committee had pointed out shocking lapses by the office of the DCGI in the approval of new drugs under the Drugs & Cosmetics Act.
     
    Many of these lapses, he said, border on criminal negligence. Mr Reddy also pointed out that ``there appeared to be a long running problem of missing files at the office of the DCGI’’ as was reported in the 59th report of the parliamentary standing committee on health and family welfare, the Mohapatra Committee Report and the CIC too in its earlier orders had pointed out several previous cases that make a missing file is an offence under the Public Records Act, 1993 and that a legal inquiry must be conducted if a file goes missing. 
     
    The CPIO of drugs regulation section of the ministry of health and family welfare, reiterated that they did not have a copy of the report as it was not available with them.
     
    However, they contacted Prof TM Mohapatra personally who provided them with a copy of the “Report of the committee constituted to review the procedures and practices followed by CDSCO for granting approval and clinical trials on certain drugs.” However, Mr Reddy was provided with an uncertified copy through email. At the CIC hearing the CPIO assured the CIC that he would provide him with a certified copy. 
     
    However, the CPIO of CDSCO and DGHS defended themselves stating that the department had, from time to time, informed the Parliament about the measures taken, based on regular review of CDSCO and its functioning, to address the various issues highlighted in the 59th report of the department related parliamentary: standing committee.
     
    The CIC observed that the Mohapatra Committee Report has also commented on the issue of poorly maintained records and missing files at the office of the DCGI. It states that in several previous second appeal cases the CIC has pointed out that a missing file is an offence under the Public Records Act, 1993 and a legal inquiry must be conducted if a file goes missing.
     
    There is another CIC decision which states that the public authority should invoke its power under Section 19(8)(iii) of the RTI Act to order DCGI to publish all information regarding approvals of new drugs on its website; invoke its power under Section 19(8)(iv) of the RTI Act to conduct an audit of all files and present a report to the CIC regarding the plan of action for missing files and; to register an FIR under the Public Records Act, 1993 so that an investigation may be conducted into the missing  files. The commission thus felt that there was an urgent need to develop a robust system of record keeping in DCGI and to review its efficaciousness periodically, as earlier orders fell on deaf ears.
     
    Jhulka’s CIC decision of 26 May 2020, spurred several activists to tweet the misdoings of the DCGI and CDSCO which go unabated. Dinesh Thakur, public health activist and whistleblower of the Ranbaxy Laboratories fame, had a series of tweets on this issue. One of his tweets aptly stated:  “The CIC has taken cognizance of the ministry's conduct and has ordered remedial actions in its order: https://dineshthakur.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Mahapatra-Decision.pdf… Why is it so difficult to get access to such important reports which have a disproportionate impact on #publichealth?
     
    Lawyer and activist, Amit Kumar has tweeted that: " My analysis says that CDSCO in the last four years approved more than 12 drugs in India without any phase III clinical trial and all with a grim violation of their own policy. Four drugs of same company, a UK based MNC  were approved in two years without any phase III clinical trial in India."
     
    Frightening, isn’t it?
     
    The CIC Decision
     
    "Keeping in view the facts of the case and the submissions made by both the parties, it was noted by the Commission that on its intervention, a reply was furnished to the appellant. The commission however expressed its serious concern over the record keeping methodology in the office of DCGI / CDSCO due to the fact that an important report relating to the review of procedures and practices followed by CDSCO for granting approval and clinical trials on certain drugs went missing from their office that had to be procured from the author after the receipt of the notice of hearing from the Commission. 
     
    “This is despite the fact that the parliamentary standing committee had also taken cognizance of the lapses by the public authority. The intent and the conduct of the public authority should always be above board in matters relating to the grant of approvals through a transparent and objective mechanism. The commission advises the secretary, m/o health and family welfare, govt. of India to examine this matter appropriately for further necessary action at its end."
     
     
    (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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    COMMENTS

    tillan2k

    1 month ago

    Make money while coRONA shines .. make money on Asian Olympics, money from animal fodder, flood relief funds, hea wave funds Pharam cos pile cash on human miseries ...

    glnprasad52

    1 month ago

    CIC has powers only as per RTI and all their decisions are just advises and no one really cares for CIC. Believe me, nothing is going to improve in their systems. They just ignore the advice. It is the same case with every Ministry, and this irresponsibility and unaccountability were inherited from the old regime.

    shetyerb

    1 month ago

    This article should be sent to PM Modi office. They mandatorily acknowledge such letters and in many cases also investigate.
    If they have not done anything, after 4 months they should be reminded.

    REPLY

    glnprasad52

    In Reply to shetyerb 1 month ago

    Since when PMO commenced investigating such cases. An employee below clerical level sorts out the petitions Ministry wise, a clerk types details of petitioners and lists ministry wise, and a section officer signs the covering letter to Ministry under copy to PMO. This is the general practice. It is not proper to expect PMO to decide on such trivial issues, when such matters are to be handled by officers. A court should take it as suo motu and order investigation through CVC to find out the facts and violations.

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