RTI Activists Sign Petition Seeking Uploading of Covid Information on Government Websites
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”.)
 
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    COMMENTS

    Ramesh Popat

    1 week ago

    Like Duryodhana in Mahabharat, Govt says, we know everything,
    but can't implement ( very valid compulsion)!

    s5rwav

    1 week ago

    NBA is Voluntary Organization that is Not Accountable to Anyone and Allows Unwarranted TV Broadcasts in India. I am Babubhai Vaghela from Ahmedabad. Thanks. https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/do-you-watch-tv-sc-asks-news-broadcasters-associationnba-calls-it-toothless-163161

    s5rwav

    2 weeks ago

    Superb 😄😄

    Public Information Officers who deliberately deny information should be shown the doors observes Madras High Court
    In a boost to furthering the impact of the Right to Information (RTI) act, Justice S Vaidyanathan of the Madras High Court has ruled that Public Information Officers (PIO) who deliberately and tactfully deny information are unfit to hold office of a PIO and must be shown the door says a report by Live Law
     
    In a recent judgement in the case of Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (TNPSC) vs P. Muthian, Justice Vaidyanathan observed, “Such Officers must be taught a lesson and in my view, they are unfit to hold the post of Public Information Officer or any other post in connection with the discharge of duties under RTI Act and they should be shown the doors, so that it will be a lesson for other Officers to act in accordance with the terms of the Act, failing which they may also face the similar or more consequences.” 
     
    This case was originally in connection with an RTI filed by a retired Deputy Collector P Muthian who asked the TNPSC for the following details
     
    a) Total number of vacancies called for the years 2006, 2007 and 2008;
     
    b) Number of seats allocated to the Backward Community out of the total number of vacancies called for the years 2006, 2007 and 2008;
     
    c) Number of seats allocated to the Most Backward Community out of the total number of vacancies called for the years 2006, 2007 and 2008;
     
    d) Out of seats allocated to the Backward Community, the list of the selected candidates from the sub-castes of Muthuraja and Muthriyar;
     
    e) Out of seat allocated to the Most Backward Community, the list of selected candidates from the sub-castes Ambalakarar;
     
    f) Out of seat allocated to the Most Backward Community, the list of selected candidates from Vanniya Kula Shatriar sub-castes (Vanniyar, Vanniya, Vanniya Gounder, Kandar, Padayachi
    Palli and Agni Kular Shathriar)."
     
    The TNPSC however in their response to the High Court mentioned that they had shared the information for queries from a to c but had refused to share information pertaining to d, e and f since that would amount to an invasion of privacy of the individuals and also create communal discontent and strife. 
     
    In its response to the high court, the commission observed, “TNPSC being a Constitutional Functionary, has moral obligation to maintain confidentiality and in the event of furnishing of the details to the respondent, it would harm the interest of third parties and the details regarding caste-wise breakup of the selected candidates got nothing to do with the public activity and such disclosure would amount to invasion of the privacy of individuals, apart from creation of communal discontent and strife”
     
    The court however in its judgement disagreed and said, “The contention of TNPSC that the details sought for by the respondent are not at all warranted and that it would amount to invasion of privacy, cannot be accepted, especially when the selection itself is based on caste wise quota” 
     
    It further observed, “When the general list itself has already been published for public view, as stated in the petition, there is nothing wrong in disclosing the details to the respondent. In the list, the details of caste, including sub-caste have to be necessarily mentioned and the contention that such revelation would create communal disharmony is not acceptable.”
     
    Calling the commission’s apprehension illusionary and imaginary, the court said if they were really concerned about the disharmony that would arise due to revealing caste and other sub-caste details, “then the TNPSC and the Government, they should think of abolishing the quota system as well as removal of column regarding caste particulars in the school certificate itself, so that the people of Tamil Nadu could stand united under one roof irrespective of caste, creed, religion, etc. at least in the year 2050 and our State will be a model State for the whole of the country.” 
     
    The court further observed that the TNPSC PIO’s refusal to share information under clause 8(1)(d) of the RTI act was wholly unjustified since that clause related to commercial confidence, trade secrets, etc., and it does not strictly prohibit the authority concerned from providing such details, as divulging of caste details. 
     
    Upholding the Tamil Nadu Information Commission’s (TNIC) ruling, the court was of the opinion that,” the Second Appellate Authority has rightly passed the order, holding that every citizen is entitled to transparent view of the functioning of public authorities and the trepidation shown by the Public Authority with regard to the demand of such details by others will not be a ground in denying details to public in contra to the provisions of the RTI Act.”  
     
    Although, this judgment may seem to be in favour of promoting RTI, senior RTI activist and Retd Central Information Commissioner Mr Shailesh Gandhi had a differing opinion. In a statement to Moneylife, Mr Gandhi said, “While it is commendable that the court had passed an order to share information, the judgement itself doesn’t specify other details such as penalties if any were levied.” 
     
    Furthermore he added,” It is important for RTI activists to be more critical and to clearly read the judgements of the Information Commissions (IC), High Courts (HC) and Supreme Court to understand the ramifications of the judgements and orders passed.” 
     
    Read full judgement here:
     
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    COMMENTS

    glnprasad52

    2 weeks ago

    What a great joke !!! When not even 0.01% PIOs are not even fined for malafide and deliberate denial,. Who should show those PIOs the doors, when the PIOs are performing additional duty on extra designation only. So far not even one case was discussed for even proceeding against any PIO calling explanation under disciplinary proceedings even in case of deliberate and malafide denials. The sliver edge is that a citizen is having the right to information alone and can only pray for such action against PIO and the discretion is entirely of IC and appellants have nothing to say or stress than beg in the prayers. Just impose fine mandatorily for the delay or malafide denial, PIO need not be shown doors. RTI within a week comes out of ICU to run a marathon race .

    RTI Shows Rs4.15 Crore Spent on Publicity of Arogya Setu App between May and July 2020, All Else Is Under Wraps!
    The Arogya Setu app developed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) that comes under the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) in April 2020 and supposed to help users to identify whether they are at risk of a COVID-19 infected individual around them. It has been downloaded by over 150 million.
     
    However, despite such large public use of a government facility, where the health status of crores of citizens is in the public domain, it is shocking to note that public agencies refuse to divulge any information under the Right to Information Act (RTI).  
     
    The RTI reply received from the ministry of information & broadcasting (MIB) by Aniket Gaurav of The Legal Squad, which also uses RTI for transparency, revealed that Rs4.15 crore were spent between May and July 2020 for publicising the app, mostly through television and radio mode. That apart, all other information on the app is in utter secrecy.
     
    Members of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which consistently uses the RTI Act to demand transparency and accountability from government authorities, have been driven up the wall since April this year, trying to procure information under RTI through filing multiple requests with the MeitY, the ministry of health & family welfare (MOHFW), the NIC and the NITI Aayog, on various aspects of the Arogya Setu app.
     
    On 4th April, IFF filed an RTI application with NIC and MOHFW seeking information on the legislative framework, rules, guidelines or policies authorising the use of the Aarogya Setu application; the kind of data collected by the app; the storage duration of the data collected from quarantined persons; list of government officials, who will have access to this data; person and organisations with whom this data will be shared; the specific security safeguards which have been put in place to protect the confidentiality of personally identifiable details of persons in quarantine and their data and the names of the government-appointed expert panel, appointed to monitor the data captured by this app.
     
    MOHFW replied that it did not have any of the requested information related to the Arogya Setu App and forwarded the request to NIC (which has developed the app with some unknown volunteers).  To this, the IFF had tweeted: 
     
     
    Replies given on 7th May by the NIC too are evasive. IFF tweeted:
     
     
     
    The NIC replied as follows:
     
    As for the legislative framework which authorises the use of the application, the NIC transferred the request to MeitY which had already stated that it does not hold the information.
     
    Regarding the request for individuals and/or organisations who will have access to the health data collected of crores of Indians, the reply was that “by the officials who are involved in COVID-19 related efforts.”
     
    The horrifying fact is that the protocol published by the government states that the information can be accessed by third-party researchers. States the IFF in its report, “the vague answer does not satisfy the query we raised in which we asked for an exhaustive list of such officials. Such vague answers are also not ideal since they leave the ambit too wide and essentially do not answer the question asked. It is also pertinent to note here that in the since published protocol which provides the legal basis to the application, it was stated that access will also be provided to third-party researchers.” 
     
    Subsequently, on 7th May, the IFF members also filed RTI applications with NIC, NITI Aayog and MOHFW requesting names of the group of volunteers who developed the Arogya Setu application and the source code of the application. All the RTI applications were forwarded to the NIC. The PIO of the NIC, refusing to reveal the source code, not surprisingly, denied information under Section 8 (1) (d) of the RTI Act and in his reply stated that: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information.’’
     
    Subsequently, the IFF has procured some information relating to agencies associated with the developing of the app and its members are working on this information by filing further RTI applications.
     
    Going by the non-transparency of this app which is hugely and directly related to the public, the IFF report rues, “this could mean that the application may be exploited in the future for some commercial use. It also means that certain commercial/proprietary rights may be vested with the third parties themselves. Since we do not know the names of all the volunteers who were involved in the development of the application, this brings into question their motivation for volunteering to build the application.’’ However, subsequently, the MeitY did put the source code in the public domain on GitHub. (GitHub is the government’s online repository for software code).
     
    The IFF report observes that: “The Aarogya Setu application which is collecting the health data of millions of Indians needs to be accountable to these individuals. However, the government of India and the various governmental authorities who have been involved in the development and deployment of this application have failed to disclose relevant information about the application. In failing to do so, the government opens up the application to questions regarding its legitimacy.
     
    “Since no public debate was held before the deployment of the application, it becomes even more imperative to ensure that accountability is demanded from the government by mobilising mechanisms such as the Right to Information Act. The government has a legal responsibility to provide satisfactory responses on queries raised under this Act, failing which further action may be initiated by concerned individuals and organisations.’’ 
     
    (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

    Meenal Mamdani

    3 weeks ago

    Indian govt, whether at the central or state level, is very secretive, often when there is no need for such secrecy. Therefore it is no surprise that the same is happening in this case.

    Most informed citizens will not download this app as apart from the information being used illegally by private vendors, the govt itself may use the information to harass the person.

    Another reason why govts in Insia at all levels are reluctant to part with information is because knowledge is money and the official often expects a bribe to divulge the information which legally should be available to any citizen free of cost.

    This pandemic has exposed the utter stupidity of most govt officials as they have issued one diktat after another, one contradicting the other. It is not that India does not have knowledgeable people but they are dominated by clueless politicos.

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