RTI Researcher Forces Health Ministry to Issue List of COVID-19 Hospitals, Name a Nodal Officer
The cynicism we hear so often about the RTI Act being ineffective, is thankfully almost always countered by an effective use of this transparency law by citizens, for the larger public good.
 
One such recent example is that of compelling the union health ministry to disclose information on designated COVID-19 hospitals and treatment centers across the country, so as to help people quickly identify hospitals if they have to rush their near and dear ones, who may show symptoms of this deadly pandemic.
 
Venkatesh Nayak, RTI research scholar and programme coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), decided to take up this critical issue because he stated that, ``After learning from media reports and friends that COVID infected people were having difficulties finding the locations of the designated COVID hospitals, I rummaged through ministry of health and family welfare (MOHFW)'s website and its newly set up COVID resource page for a consolidated list of such hospitals.  I found none.’’
 
So, he filed an RTI Application under Section 7 of the RTI Act as, it is information that directly concerns the life and liberty of individuals across the country and hence must be given within 48 hours. He requested that the information he asked for be uploaded on the MoHFW website within 48 hours of receipt of his request.
 
The details which Nayak wanted uploaded on the website were:
 
1) The district-wise number of hospitals and healthcare facilities called by any other name, designated as COVID-19 treatment centers as on date;
 
2) The postal addresses and telephone numbers of the hospitals and healthcare facilities referred to above; 
 
3) The criteria applied for determining whether or not a hospital or a healthcare facility should be designated as a COVID- 19 treatment center; 
 
4) The district-wise names of hospitals and health care facilities whose designation as COVID-19 treatment centres has been withdrawn as on date; and
 
5) The reasons for withdrawing the designation of every hospital and health care facility referred to at para no. 4 above.
 
Quite predictably, the game of passing the buck began in right earnest; MoHFW's Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) transferred the RTI application to the directorate general of health services (DGHS) and the Indian council for medical research (ICMR). Neither of the public authorities sent Nayak any reply. 
 
States Nayak, ``Six days later, DGHS transferred the RTI application back to the hospital section of MoHFW. A week later the CPIO of the hospital section transferred the RTI application to the PIOs of Safdarjung and Ram Manohar Lohia hospitals and Lady Hardinge Medical College (LHMC) and Associated Hospitals in Delhi. Another week later the PIO of LHMC sent the first reply to my RTI application directing me to look up MoHFW's website for the list of central institutions designated as COVID hospitals! He also stated that other information specified in the RTI application was not available with him.’’
 
Nayak again sent a complaint on 20th May to the CIC, stating that his RTI application was being treated like a ping pong ball and information given to him from different sources was confusing. He wrote to the CIC that: ``The Press Information Bureau website uploaded an article written by the Union minister for information and broadcasting and environment and forests on 5 May 2020 where he mentioned the existence of at least 700 dedicated COVID hospitals and treatment centres.
 
`` Next, I cited the record of the gist of the conversation of the Union minister for health and family welfare with representatives of the government of punjab- also uploaded on the PIB website on 13 May 2020 where the number of such facilities had grown considerably.
 
The minister is reported to have said, "as of now 900 dedicated COVID hospitals with 1,79,882 beds (Isolation beds- 1,60,610 and ICU beds- 19,272) and 2,040 dedicated COVID health centres with 1,29,689 beds (isolation beds- 1,19,340 and ICU beds- 10,349) along with 8,708 quarantine centres and 5,577 COVID care centres with 4,93,101 beds are now available to combat COVID-19 in the country."
 
So he argued to the CIC that neither minister could have mentioned these aggregate figures unless there was a list of such hospitals and treatment centres available with the respondent public authorities, particularly, the MoHF.’’
 
CIC's Advisory to MoHFW
 
The CIC conducted the hearing on 1 June 2020 through a WhatsApp call. Five CPIOs representing all the respondent public authorities including the hospitals to which Nayak’s RTI application was transferred, were also present. All of them denied that their units had a comprehensive list of hospitals and treatment centres designated for the purpose of treating COVID-19 infected patients. They pleaded ignorance about the source of information that the two union ministers mentioned in their write-up and meetings. 
 
Expressing its displeasure at this state of affairs, the CIC advised MoHFW as follows:
 
"...the commission advises the secretary, M/o H&FW to designate an officer of an appropriate seniority as a nodal officer to examine the matter and suo motu 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."
 
Within ten days of the CIC's advisory, MoHFW has issued an order appointing  Saranga Dhar Nayak, deputy secretary in the ministry (and also a designated first appellate authority under the RTI Act) on 15th June.
 
It may be recalled that Moneylife on 13 March 2020 had carried an article, appreciating the transparency of the union health ministry when the COVID-19 pandemic was relatively new in India. https://www.moneylife.in/article/union-health-ministry-honours-rti-shares-all-updates-on-corona-virus-kerala-follows-suit/59698.html
 
Today, it has a lot of information on its website except the crucial one of guiding people to the appropriate COVID-19 hospitals and treatment centres. Let’s hope the nodal officer does the needful and fast! He was supposed to have uploaded today – that is, 25th June.
 
(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 week ago

    we all know knowledge is power and money spinning devices. by with holding info predators want to make e money from information disclosers or by enclosing and disclosing for a price what more disgusting example may God CcoRONA bless them with visits

    REPLY

    honyakusha

    In Reply to tillan2k 1 week ago

    Today is 27th June and there is still nothing on the MOHFW website. Such an important issue needs to be taken up at the cabinet level. Petition collecting signatures?

    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.

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