'No Panel Formed': Centre's Surprise Claim After CIC Asks for Details on Oxygen Supply Committee

The CIC’s direction to the Union government was significant as until now, the government has not shared details of meetings of the panel set up for COVID-19 management.

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New Delhi: In a dramatic change in its stance, the Union government, which was directed by the Central Information Commission on July 29 to reveal details of the functioning of an Empowered Committee under the Secretary of the Department the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), has now stated in a compliance note that “no such committee was set up”.

As reported by The Wire earlier, the CIC had directed the Union government to provide within 10 days the details of meetings, discussions and agendas of the empowered, nine-member sub-committee that was set up to ensure adequate availability of oxygen during the second wave of COVID-19.

The Commission said that the Union government’s refusal to provide information on the preparations and response to the pandemic on the grounds that it would pose a challenge to national interests was not justifiable and “far-fetched”.

It had also stated that all records of discussions, agenda of meetings, and the minutes of meetings of the committee should be provided to RTI activist Saurav Das, who had filed a request for information on the committee’s functioning on April 24.

The direction was significant as until now, the Union government has been withholding information pertaining to this high-powered panel despite the shortage of oxygen having led to hundreds of deaths.

Also read: CIC Directs Centre to Reveal Details of Meetings of High Powered Panel on Oxygen Supply

‘No committee formed under DPIIT Secretary’

The Union government’s response to the CIC order is surprising.

In a letter, dated August 6, that pertained to its compliance of the July 29 CIC order in the matter of the second appeal filed by Das, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, of which the DPIIT is a part, wrote that “no such committee was set up in the month of April 2020, under the Chairmanship of Secretary DPIIT, Shri Guruprasad Mohapatra, to ensure adequate availability of medical oxygen in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic”.

Das had also asked for information on the exact dates on which the committee met, the detailed agenda of its meetings, the presentations made before the group and the minutes of its meetings. To all this, the government said an answer “does not arise in view of above”.

‘Why not tell CIC that no such panel existed?’

Reacting to the Ministry’s reply, Das wondered why the same Ministry had earlier fought “to withhold records of the very same committee before the CIC” if such a committee never existed.

Das pointed out that the Ministry had earlier clearly acknowledged the presence of such a committee under the Union Secretary.

Referring to the CIC order, Das said that under the head of “reasons for information sought exempted from being disclosed”, it was stated:

“The appellant through his application dated 24 April, 2021 has sought information pertaining to the functioning of the Empowered Group under the convenorship of Secretary DPIIT. As apprised earlier, this Empowered Group was tasked to ensure adequate supply of Covid-19 related medical equipment and essential items such as ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE kits), RTPCR kits, N-95 masks and gloves, and subsequently with procurement and supply of liquid medical oxygen in India to mitigate the adverse impact of Covid-19 pandemic in the country.”

All through the hearing of the case, the Ministry never claimed that the empowered group under the DPIIT secretary does not exist.

In his April application, Das had pointed out that this empowered group was tasked with the responsibility of ensuring adequate supply of COVID-19 related medical equipment and essential items to hospitals across the country.

CIC had recorded details of Empowered Group in order

Das had submitted in his application that “the Empowered Group was set-up by the Government of India to fast-track the decision making process for augmenting supply of essential medical equipment and other essential commodities and ensure rapid distribution across the country.” This was recorded by Central Information Commissioner Vanaja N. Sarna in her order.

“During the first wave of COVID-19, the empowered group worked extensively with industry and government organisations to scale up the production and distribution of these commodities,” Das’s application also stated. And in the second wave, it said, the empowered group while ensuring adequate availability of all other commodities, was primarily tasked to enhance the availability of liquid medical oxygen for the treatment of critically ill COVID-19 patients.

Also read: Govt May Not Remember Any Oxygen Shortage Deaths, But the Public Certainly Does

The petition had also mentioned that the empowered group deliberated and engaged extensively with several organisations both domestic and foreign, as well as public and private entities, with the objective to augment the manufacturing and supplying of these medical equipment and commodities, including supply of liquid medical oxygen.

In light of the important role this empowered group was tasked with, Das had filed his application under the “life and liberty clause”, which makes it mandatory for the public authority to provide answers to the queries within 48 hours.

CPIO’s claims

In his reply, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) had noted that the group had made sure that bureaucratic hassles did not impede the decision making process. However, he declined to disclose the details sought by Das since the proposals and deliberations “contain highly sensitive information” regarding technologies, strategies and processes to be adopted, the commercial and cost aspects of different industries and commodities.

“The public disclosure of this information could greatly impede the scientific, strategic and economic interests of the state. It is for this reason that the empowered group deliberations are sought to be exempted from disclosure of information under the RTI Act, 2005,” the response said.

Furthermore, he submitted that the proposals considered by the empowered group contain commercial business, technological and strategical information pertaining to several government and private entities which qualifies as commercial confidence and/or intellectual property and the disclosure of this information would “impair and irreparably harm” the competitive position of the government and the private entities.

The information sought was denied citing Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act.

In addition to this, the CPIO denied the information citing Section 8(1)(i) of the Act, which provides that records of deliberations of secretaries and other officers who form part of cabinet discussions are also exempted from disclosure.

Also read: States, UTs Didn’t Report Deaths Due to Lack of Oxygen During Second Wave: Centre

Cursory reply failed to amplify reasons: CIC

However, the CIC did not agree with the CPIO’s contention and held that he had through his final reply of June 11 only “provided a cursory reply claiming exemption u/s 8(1)(a) and (d) and had failed to amplify the same with reasons.”

Also, Sarna held that “he also failed to record his reasons for rejecting the applicant’s request to consider the same under the clause of “life and liberty”.

She said the information was denied in a “blanket manner”, which was “not at all justified”. The commissioner asked the CPIO to revisit all the points in the RTI application and after applying Section 10 of the RTI Act, “as suggested by the applicant himself during the hearing”, provide as much information as disclosable in the letter and spirit of the RTI Act.

Section 10 of the Act says “access may be provided to that part of the record which does not contain any information which is exempt from disclosure”.

Sarna had also cautioned the CPIO to remain careful in the future while rejecting pleas of “life and liberty” and provide a reply with reasons within the time frame to avoid multiple appeals.