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

    2 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.

    For the 5th Time in the Past 6 Years, Post of Central Chief Information Commissioner Is Vacant Again
    Is it a case of no lessons learnt or deliberate attempt to scuttle the Right to Information (RTI) Act? Once again, with the retirement of chief central information commissioner (CCIC) Bimal Julka on the 27th August, the post of the chief information commissioner (CIC) in Delhi has fallen vacant and once again neither the directives of the department of personnel and training (DoPT) in starting the process of selecting the next CIC, three months before retirement, nor the Supreme Court’s order in 2019 to make appointments transparent and within the time schedule, is being heeded.
     
    Besides Mr Julka’s vacancy, which has just rendered the central information commission headless, four posts of information commissioners (ICs) are also vacant in the CIC. Anjali Bharadwaj, member of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, which is campaigning over this issue and even sought judicial intervention in the highest judicial body of the country, states, “Currently more than 35,000 appeals and complaints are pending in the commission, resulting in citizens having to wait for months, even years for their cases to be disposed, thereby frustrating peoples’ right to know.’’
     
    In fact, since 2014, when the Modi government took over, there has been dilly-dallying over prompt appointment of ICs, leading to several vacancies in the CIC in New Delhi as well in various state information commissions. The basic mandatory clauses of releasing advertisement to call for applications to these posts, three months before the retirement of any CCIC, CIC or IC and to ensure that the search and selection committees zero in on the candidate, have been flouted.  (Read: Since May 2014, CICs or ICs Have Been Appointed Only When Directed by the Courts)
     
    Rues Ms Bharadwaj, “Since May 2014, not a single commissioner of the CIC has been appointed without citizens having to approach courts. The failure of the government to make timely appointments of commissioners is a flagrant violation of the directions of the Supreme Court. In its February 2019 judgment, the apex court had categorically stated that if the CIC does not have a Chief Information Commissioner or the required strength of commissioners, it adversely affects the functioning of the RTI Act and “may even amount to negating the very purpose for which this Act came into force.” 
     
    To ensure timely appointments, the court had directed that the process of selection should commence prior to the vacancy arising. Further, the judgement notes, “The petitioners are right in their submissions that there have been undue delays in filling up of these vacancies. We expect that the vacancies shall be filled up, in future, well in time.” (Judgment in WPC 436 of 2018- Anjali Bhardwaj & Ors Vs Union of India & Ors.).
     
    The Central government has also faltered in the transparency aspect in the appointment of CICs. In its December 2019 order as well as in its earlier order of February 2019, the Supreme Court directed the government to ensure transparency in the process of appointment by disclosing the names of the members of the search committee and complying with the earlier directions regarding timely and transparent appointments to the CIC. It had made it mandatory to:
     
    disclosure of the agenda and minutes of the search and selection committee meetings
     
    criteria adopted by the search committee for shortlisting candidates
     
    the advertisement issued for the vacancies
     
    the list of applicants, notification of appointments, file notings and correspondence related to appointments.
     
    However, only skeletal information has been uploaded in the public domain.
     
    Says Ms Bharadwaj, “The repeated failure to appoint the chief and other commissioners of the CIC in a timely manner appears to be a deliberate attempt by the government to undermine the RTI Act & frustrate peoples' ability to seek information to hold the government accountable.’’
     
    Writes research scholar and programme coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Venkatesh Nayak, in The Leaflet, “While NDA’s promise of minimum government is laudable, when institutions like the information commissions are weakened then the governance will also get minimised and turn the Constitution’s vision of rule of law into a distant dream.” 
     
    Mr Nayak feels that as per the 2019 Supreme Court guidelines, the government must complete forthwith the process of filling up the vacancies in the CIC which was initiated last month. The search committee headed by the cabinet secretary and the selection committee headed by the prime minister must identify well-qualified candidates to recommend to the President of India for an appointment without any further delay.
     
    Earlier story: 
     
     
     
    (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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    RTI Reveals: Pakistan Flouted Ceasefire 8,571 Times at the Borders from January 2018 to July 2020
    Six civilians were injured after an unprovoked ceasefire violation by Pakistan in the first week of August this year, along the line of control (LoC) in the Tangdhar Sector of Kupwara.
     
    In fact, hundreds of families residing in several villages along the LoC suffer physical injuries, fatalities and loss of property due to Pakistan’s continuous ceasefire violations and it’s just gotten worse in the past two and a half years.
     
    As per the information received by Jammu-based RTI activist Raman Sharma from the ministry of home affairs (MHA), there have been 8,571 ceasefire violations from 1 January 2018 to 31 July 2020. This, Mr Sharma says, amounts to nearly 10 ceasefire violations every single day. 
     
    The information provided by the office of director, security (J & K Wing) of MHA, also states that during the past two and a half years, at least 119 Indians lost their lives. These included the lives of 63 civilians and 56 security force personnel. Besides, 308 civilians and 300 security force personnel were injured.
     
    According to Mr Sharma, “The reply that I received from MHA through my RTI application also discloses that as compared to year 2010, the aggression incidents by Pakistan at the border in Jammu and Kashmir in the year 2019 increased around 50 times and till July 2020 further increased 60 times. Whereas in 2010, there were only 70 such incidents and in year 2019, 3,479 such incidents are reported, 2,952 incidents of ceasefire violations have been recorded till July-2020.’’
     
    The RTI reply further reveals that in the decade of 2010-2020, Pakistan violated the peace pact on borders at least 11,572 times and resorted to cross-border fire in Jammu and Kashmir, killing 240 Indians that includes 122 civilians and 118 security force personnel. The firing also injured 673 civilians and 594 SF personnel. 
     
    States Mr Sharma, “Every year the cross border shelling incidents by Pakistan are increasing. In year 2010, only 70 such incidents were reported that killed two civilians and five SF personnel whereas in year 2019 the number of Pakistan’s unprovoked shelling incidents increased around 50 times as 3479 incidents were reported that caused the killing of 18 civilians and 19 security personnel in cross border shelling. This year till July, 2952 cross border shelling claimed lives of 15 civilians, besides 38 others injured and also causing death of 8 Jawans and injuring 62 others.’’
     
    As per this RTI information, five lakh rupees of ex-gratia cash relief is given to the family members in case of death or to the victim of more than 50% disability. Compensation for housing damages,   crop and livestock losses, stay at relief camps and displacement, to those affected by cross border firings are also reimbursed by the Central government. As per the National Disaster Response Fund, compensation of Rs.50,000 is provided for loss of domestic animals. Besides, government of Jammu and Kashmir also gives relief to person injured as per the extent rules.
     
    Mr Sharma had sought the following information in his online RTI application to the ministry of home affairs:
     
    1. Kindly provide district wise detail of total Indian citizens who were killed in cross border shelling on LoC & International border area of Jammu & Kashmir between 01 Jan 2010 till date (July 2020).
     
    2. Kindly provide district wise detail of total number of Indian citizens who were injured in cross border shelling on LoC & International border area of Jammu & Kashmir between 01 Jan 2010 to till date.
     
    3. Kindly provide district wise detail of total number of cease fire violations committed by Pakistan on LoC & international border areas of Jammu & Kashmir between 01 Jan 2010 and July 2020.
     
    4. As per policy, provide details of ex gratia, compensation being given by central government for loss of each civilian’s life in cross border shelling from Pakistan side in J & K.
     
    5. Also provide certified copy of such policy, rule as mentioned in point no 4 of this RTI plea.
     
    6. Kindly provide district wise detail of total Indian security force personnel martyred in cross border shelling on LoC & international border area of Jammu & Kashmir between 01 Jan 2010 to till date.
     
    7. Kindly provide district wise detail of total Indian security force personnel injured in cross border shelling on LoC & international border area of Jammu & Kashmir between 01 Jan 2010 to till date.
     
    (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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