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."
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