The Central Information Commission (CIC) has in a significant decision decided to “accord precedence” to matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic “depending on the facts and circumstance of the case”. With this the panel has fulfilled a major demand of RTI activists who had been seeking early hearings in issues related to the control and treatment of the novel coronavirus.
The decision to the effect was announced on May 6, 2021 by the legal department of the CIC, which quoted its own circular of July 22, 2016 to state that “the circular takes care of exigencies arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic”. It also noted in the circular that early hearings on COVID-related issues could take place, saying: “Appellants or complainants desirous of early hearings can approach the concerned registry of this Commission in this regard.”
The 2016 circular had earlier laid down the ground for such according of priority by the panel as it provided that “the Commission in a particular matter may decide to accord precedence depending on the facts and circumstance of the cases’.’
This move augurs well for RTI applicants and activists as they would not be able to approach the registrar for early hearing of their second appeals.
Incidentally, the decision of the CIC comes close on the heels of the Madras high court directing it on April 28, 2021 to set up a special bench for hearing COVID-19 related matters. The high court had also ordered the Commission to work daily for at least three to four days on these cases and dispose them as per the timeline. As per Section 7 (1) of the RTI Act, such cases are required to be disposed of within 48 hours. The court had also directed the CIC and the state information commissions (SICs) to look at the possibility of “taking up matters on the virtual mode upon indicating an e-filing system”.
The petition in the matter was filed by RTI activist Saurav Das who had urged the Madras high court to prioritise second appeals related to COVID-19.
Reacting to the CIC decision which has finally decided to treat such cases with necessary urgency, Das tweeted: “In a major victory for transparency, the Central Information Commission has started hearing pandemic-related RTI cases on priority. This, after Madras HC’s recommendation, on my petition. Lots of crucial info on COVID was being denied by the Centre. Not anymore!’’
In a major victory for transparency, the Central Info Commission has started hearing pandemic-related RTI cases on priority. This, after Madras HC's recommendation, on my petition.
Lots of crucial info on COVID being denied by Centre. Not anymore!
— Saurav Das (@OfficialSauravD) May 24, 2021
Das had moved the Madras high court as he discovered that the CIC was not prioritising the RTI applications related to COVID-19 filed by him under Section 7 (1) of the RTI Act despite pointing out that information regarding the pandemic should be given out in a time-bound manner. Another issue that Das faced was that the first appeals were also taking up to 45 days at the level of the first appellate authority.
He had, therefore, filed the petition in the high court, stating that “time is of the essence under the RTI Act, and even more so during the current COVID-19 pandemic, as any delay in procuring the information sought could have a detrimental impact on public health and the lives of people”.
Das also argued that “such cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic fall under the right to life and liberty and it is imperative that they are dealt with expeditiously.”
The issuance of the circular by the CIC now would pave the way for applicants to seek information on various aspects of COVID-19 treatment and management that come under the life or liberty clause, with the assurance that their queries will be dealt with within 48 hours.