CIC Pulls up Health Ministry for 'Casual' Approach to Queries on Why Masks Were Made Mandatory

Among other questions, an RTI application had claimed that contradictory information related to mask-wearing was displayed on the websites of the health ministry and the Directorate General Of Health Services.

New Delhi: The Central Information Commission (CIC) has taken strong exception to the “very casual” manner in which the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare dealt with an application that raised “very pertinent issues relating to larger public interest” by asking why face masks were made mandatory for curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Since government notifications were issued making the wearing of masks compulsory while in any public place and even fines of up to Rs 1,000 were imposed on people found not wearing masks, Mathew Thomas, in a petition filed on May 26, 2020, had raised four points regarding the move.

He had asked for the reasons behind making wearing of masks compulsory for the entire population in all public places; advice given by health experts in or outside the government on the use of masks; copy of any document or minutes of meetings wherein the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on masks which were considered before taking the decision; and any document or minutes of meetings which showed that only medical masks protect people in public places and substituting them with scarfs or kerchiefs not only does not protect, but carries risks of infection.

Also, through the application, Thomas asked if it was discussed that the poor, who number around 400 million, would not be able to afford medical masks and forcing them to tie scarves or some cloth around their face would be counterproductive.

Ministry went against government advisories

In his order, chief information commissioner Y.K. Sinha recorded that on not receiving any response from the CPIO, the appellant filed the first appeal on September 3, 2020 but it remained unheard. He then approached the Commission with the second appeal.

During the hearing of the appeal through an audio conference on May 25, 2021, Thomas insisted that “contrary to the advisories issued by the government from time to time, information was displayed on the website of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and DGHS [Directorate General Of Health Services] stating that persons having no symptoms of COVID-19 infection should not wear face masks; that wearing scarfs and handkerchiefs as substitutes for medical masks should be avoided and repeated use of a single mask should also be avoided as it can cause more harm than benefit.”

Sinha recorded in his order that Thomas stated that correct and accurate information should be published by the Ministry of Health of Family Welfare in the larger public interest and in compliance with the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Illustration: The Wire

Appeal was transferred by Ministry

Among the respondents, Rajiv Attri, Nodal public information officer (PIO) in the Ministry of Health, stated that he had transferred the RTI application to the public authorities mentioned in the written submission, namely CPIO, ICMR and CPIO, Department of Health.

At this, R. Lakshminarayanan, DDG (Admin) of the ICMR, said since the information was not available with his department, the application was transferred to the DGHS (EMR) Division. Another official, Sonu Kumar, from the International Health and International Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said on November 6, 2020 that his division informed Thomas that his RTI application was forwarded to the DGHS (EMR) Division. He added that the WHO is not a public authority as per Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.

Further, Dr Mohit Patralekh, CMO of EMR Division DGHS, stated that on November 11, 2020 point-wise information was provided to the appellant. He claimed that the first query on reasons for making the masks compulsory was “beyond the purview of definition of information u/s 2 (f)” of the RTI Act.

As for the next query on whether any health experts had advised the use of masks, he said, “The appellant was provided with the web link on advisory issued for use of ‘Homemade Protective Cover for Face and Mouth’ hosted on the website of Principal Scientific Advisor to the PM and the website of M/o Health and Family Welfare.” On the remaining two points, pertaining to the WHO’s recommendations and use of only medical masks, he said no information was available with his department.

‘Pertinent issues of public interest raised in appeal’

On hearing all the parties and perusing the available records, the chief information commissioner in his decision said, “It is evident and obvious that very pertinent issues relating to larger public interest have been raised in his RTI application by the appellant.” He also agreed with Thomas that “correct and accurate information should also be disclosed in the public domain in accordance with Section 4 (1) (c) and (d) of the RTI Act, 2005 so as to obviate the need for filing an RTI application.”

The CIC also observed that the RTI application was handled “very casually” and was “merely transferred from one department to another” and “complete information” was not provided on it.

Sinha said,

“The Commission takes an adverse view of the conduct of officers of the RTI Cell, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare who have simply acted as a post office and transferred the RTI application to various departments without assisting/ facilitating the information seeker with flow of information.” He added that “merely by transferring the RTI application, it cannot be said that the transferring authority can be completely absolved of his duties and responsibilities as CPIO thereafter.”

‘Absurd’ of health ministry to construe that appeal pertained to WHO

Sinha also termed as “absurd”, the response provided by the International Health/ International Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, where it misinterpreted that the queries relate to the WHO, which is not a public authority. “The appellant has clearly sought information from M/o Health and Family Welfare regarding consideration of recommendations of WHO on wearing masks and not information about WHO,” the CIC noted.

Moreover, on the substantive issues raised in the RTI application, he said “complete and consolidated information on use of masks (N95/ surgical/ handmade, etc.)” was not provided.

The CIC also recorded Thomas’s allegation that contradictory information was disclosed on the website of the DGHS, where it was mentioned that a person having no symptoms of COVID-19 should not wear face masks.

A woman wearing a protective mask walks past a graffiti amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on a street in Navi Mumbai, India, March 8, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

‘Could not trace clear information’

The Commission said on the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s website had several standard operating procedures (SOPs) to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But it added, “Clear information regarding efficacy of different types of masks, conditions in which they may be used, their benefits, etc. cannot be traced [in these SOPs].”

Thus, Sinha directed the nodal CPIO of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to provide correct and accurate information, as available, on the points raised by the appellant. He said the information should be obtained by the officer from the concerned PIOs and then should be disclosed suo motu on the website of the public authority. Disposing of the appeal, the Commission also directed compliance of its order by June 15.