Despite COVID-19 being a singular and colossal public health disaster directly affecting crores of citizens, public authorities are not abiding by the suo moto disclosures under Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act and give such excuses as its PIOs (principal information officers) are on COVID duty, when a citizen seeks information through an RTI application regarding various aspects of COVID management by the respective governments and municipal authorities.
What’s worse is that despite the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW) having appointed Saranga Dhar Nayak, deputy secretary as a nodal officer on 15 June 2020 for ensuring that every public authority concerned would upload information related to COVID management on its website, there has been no seriousness about transparency in this public healthcare management.
In fact, it was thanks to the RTI scholar and activist Venkatesh Nayak who filed multiple RTIs and finally filed a second appeal with the chief information commissioner (CIC), that the nodal officer was appointed. The CIC ordered the secretary, MoHFW early June 2020 “to designate an officer of an appropriate seniority as a nodal officer to examine the matter and suo moto
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.” That’s how the nodal officer was appointed but he does not seem to have achieved the objective. We had reported the matter here
Last weekend, leading RTI activists and former bureaucrats discussed the issue of unavailability of information regarding COVID management in Maharashtra and have filed a formal complaint with Sumit Malik, Maharashtra’s state chief information commissioner (SCIC).
The complaint states that a random survey of the websites of the Sassoon Hospital, Pune Municipal Corporation, Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation, Pune’s Divisional Commisisonerate, Pune Collectorate and Maharashtra state’s health department shows that apart from public awareness information on the websites, there is no other crucial information that has been uploaded. This attempt to scuttle transparency is a serious issue considering that several crores of rupees are being spent to counter the COVID crisis. And despite these costs, citizens are provided poor quality treatment leading even to deaths due to haphazard service offered by the respective local self-government authorities.
Hence, activists under the RTI Katta forum have requested the SCIC to direct all public authorities in the state to upload information from 1 January 2020 regarding expenditure of goods and even services/e-services related to COVID management such as buying of furniture, beds, oxygen cylinder, PPE (personal protection equipment) kits, masks ventilators, medicines and so on for treatment. This information should include uploading of copies of government and technical sanctions; copies of documents/bills/sanctions of various stages of expenditure; copies of e-tenders and specifications of the products bought as well as e-services; any other documents relating to expenditure and their tabulation.
The forum members in their complaint have reminded the SCIC that implementation of the suo moto disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act is extremely poor in the state and now it has to step up as it a national health emergency. The forum in its letter also reminded the SCIC that when it is the issue of `life and liberty’ as is the case now in this pandemic, under Section 7 of the RTI Act, the public authority is duty bound to upload the information for public view within 48 hours.
States Mahesh Zagade, who has also signed the petition, “Despite the Epidemic Act and the National Disaster Management Act which has empowered the administration, it has been apathetic towards transparency in COVID information and the system has broken down. The officers have lost all sensitivity to human fatalities. RTI can’t be used post-event as PIOs are busy with health emergency work and hence it is the duty of the head of the public authority concerned to upload all information regarding COVID management.’’
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar states, “The Jumbo COVID Centre located in the College of Engineering grounds in Pune is a stark example of such apathy. Despite Rs100 crore spent on the centre, there aren’t enough beds and oxygen cylinders to save patients and several of them have died due to such negligence. Shockingly, a private company, just one month old, was awarded a tender to buy 800 cots within 24 hours. Obviously, that has not been possible and so the centre runs with just one-third of the beds. Not enough doctors and nurses are available there. Who’s responsible for such preventable deaths? Shouldn’t there be an FIR filed against the authority concerned? That is why it is essential to get information about every aspect of this centre. This is just to give you an example of why public disclosures in these pandemic times is of great importance.’’
Other RTI activists who have signed this complaint are: Shailesh Gandhi, Pralhad Kachare, Bhaskar Prabhu, Jugal Rathi and Mohammad Afzal.
(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”.)