Innumerable RTI (Right to Information) activists and users across the country have sought information since April 2020, regarding various issues related to the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic that directly affects every citizen of this country. But information has been denied by the ministry of health & family welfare (MoHFW) particularly under the various exemption clauses of Section 8 of the RTI Act.
In an embarrassing turn of events for the Central government, the Supreme Court in its order of 31 May 2021, has directed the former to file an affidavit, to provide much the same information that the RTI activists have been seeking, with emphasis regarding its vaccination policy, to be submitted by the 15th of June. Interestingly, the SC has also specifically stated that, while filing its affidavit, the Centre should “ensure that copies of all the relevant documents and file notings reflecting its thinking and culminating in the vaccination policy are also annexed on the vaccination policy.’’ Just what you should be able to procure under the RTI Act as a citizen!
What if the government provides all information in its affidavit, as required by the SC? Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner (CIC) and RTI activist states vociferously that, “not giving information under the RTI Act even if the public authority has it, is complete disregard of the fundamental rights of the citizen. While appreciating Supreme Court’s order to make the vaccination policy transparent along with file notings and documents, I feel it should ask the central government to upload all this information directly on its website and ask it to update it on a daily basis as is mandatory under suo motu disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act. This would ensure that information on an issue of such a large public interest is available at the click of the mouse for all citizens. For, even if citizens ask for such information to be given in 48 hours under Section 7 of the RTI Act, it would still take more time. So, better that it is uploaded on a daily basis’’
Earlier, in a series of hearings/orders, the Court had also given detailed orders to the government to make transparent/modify, the supply of essential drugs, supply of medical oxygen, the Co-Win App amongst other issues, after the centre had placed its say before the court. The SC order dated 6th May constituted a National Task Force to provide a public heath response to the COVID-19 pandemic on the basis of a scientific approach.
Much that was denied under RTI has been sought by the Supreme Court order now in its 31st May order as well which the centre has to provide by 15th June. This includes:
- The data on the percentage of population that has been vaccinated (with one dose and both doses), as against eligible persons in the first three phases of the vaccination drive. This shall include data pertaining to the percentage of rural population as well as the percentage of urban population so vaccinated;
- The complete data on the central government’s purchase history of all the COVID-19 vaccines till date (Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik V). The data should clarify: (a) the dates of all procurement orders placed by the central government for all three vaccines; (b) the quantity of vaccines ordered as on each date; and (c) the projected date of supply; and
- An outline for how and when the central government seeks to vaccinate the remaining population.
- While filing its affidavit, UoI (central government) shall also ensure that copies of all the relevant documents and file notings reflecting its thinking and culminating in the vaccination policy are also annexed to the vaccination policy.
The SC order has also brought to the notice of the Centre the grave digital divide between rural and urban India and has sought clarification on vaccination drives through the CoWin App which is not accessible to all citizens of India.
Referring to a survey on `Household social consumption with focus on equality of education’ by the National Statistics Office (July 2017-June 2018) the SC observed in its 31st May order that:
(i) Around 4% of the rural households and 23% of the urban households possessed a computer. In the age group of 15-29 years, around 24% in rural households and 56% in urban areas were able to operate a computer; and
(ii) Nearly 24% of the households in the country had internet access during the survey year 2017-18. The proportion was 15% in rural households and 42% in urban households. Around 35% of persons in the age group of 15-29 years reported use of internet during the 30 days prior to the date of survey. The proportions were 25% in rural areas and 58% in urban areas.
The SC, in its 31st May order, also referred to a report by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India which states that:
- Out of the total population of 1.3 billion, only 578 million people in India (less than 50%) have subscription to wireless data services. The wireless tele density in rural areas is 57.13% as compared to 155.49% in urban areas as on 31 March 2019. The report stated that: “[this] reflects the rural-urban divide in terms of telecom services€Ÿ penetration. Since, the number of wireless data subscribers are less than 50% of the total wireless access subscribers, the number of wireless data subscribers in rural areas would be much lower.
- The report also noted that in a few Indian states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam the tele density is less than 75%; and
- The monthly income of persons living below the poverty line in urban areas and rural areas is Rs 1316 and Rs 896, respectively. However, to access internet data services, a minimum tariff plan would cost around Rs 49, which includes 1 GB data every 28 days. This would constitute 4-5% of the month’s income of such persons accessing data. As such, the report notes that this would bear a considerable cost for persons living below the poverty line.
The SC further observed in its order dated 31st May that, “according to the Annual Report of Common Service Centre (CSC) programme for 2019-20, published by the ministry of electronics and information technology, while there are 2,53,134 gram panchayats in India, as on 31 March 2020 only 2,40,792 gram panchayats are covered with at least one registered CSC. Hence, approximately 13,000 gram panchayats in India do not have a CSC.’’
Hence, the SC commented that, “It is clear from the above statistics that there exists a digital divide in India, particularly between the rural and urban areas. The extent of the advances made in improving digital literacy and digital access falls short of penetrating the majority of the population in the country. Serious issues of the availability of bandwidth and connectivity pose further challenges to digital penetration. A vaccination policy exclusively relying on a digital portal for vaccinating a significant population of this country between the ages of 18-44 years would be unable to meet its target of universal immunization owing to such a digital divide. It is the marginalized sections of the society who would bear the brunt of this accessibility barrier. This could have serious implications on the fundamental right to equality and the right to health of persons within the above age group.’’
Hence, the SC has asked the Centre to clarify on the following:
- It may not be feasible to require the majority of our population to rely on friends/NGOs for digital registrations over Co-WIN, when even the digitally literate are finding it hard to procure vaccination slots.
- The issue of over-crowding may also arise at CSCs in rural areas where people would have to visit constantly in the hope of a vaccine slot opening up.
- The Co-WIN platform and other IT applications like Aarogya Setu should be made available in regional languages. The timeline for ensuring the availability of the platform in multiple regional languages.
- Conducting a disability audit for the Co-WIN website and other IT application like Aarogya Setu to ensure that they are accessible to persons with disabilities.
Let’s hope the facts come before the public, in a matter of such paramount importance.
(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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