New Delhi: During the coronavirus crisis, some key health organisations in the country have stopped responding to queries or have taken to providing irrelevant data even as people are looking to them for relief and information.
The Chief Information Commissioner Bimal Julka recently pulled up the Central Government Health Scheme for not providing information on whether the supply of essential medicines to wellness centres has been stopped.
Meanwhile, a member of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, Saurav Das, has written to the CIC head to point out how the RTI division of another key medical body, the Indian Council of Medical Research, has become almost defunct and has even stopped acknowledging the receipt of applications and has not been transferring them to the concerned officers of the public authority for a response.
CGHS goes silent when asked why essential medicines not reaching wellness centres
The CGHS was hauled up by Julka for not providing a proper reply to an applicant, Anil Sood, who had sought information on six points on whether the CGHS had stopped supplying essential medicines to all its wellness centres, including a particular one in Delhi. He also sought reasons for the same.
However, on not getting a satisfactory reply from CGHS, which comes under the Union Ministry of Health, the applicant approached the Commission, which heard the matter on April 30.
In his order, delivered the following day, the Chief Information Commissioner recorded that during the hearing, Sood reiterated the content of the RTI application and stated that the information sought by him had not been received and the local dispensary only communicated some frivolous replies not related to his application. “His pointed query was in respect of supply of essential medicines which remained unanswered.,” Julka wrote.
‘Proactive role should have been played by CGHS in times of COVID-19’
Stating that the CGHS official from North Zone reiterated that a “suitable reply” had been sent to the complainant, the CIC said “during the hearing it was abundantly clear that the details sought by the Complainant had not been replied satisfactorily whereas in the present crisis situation of COVID-19, a proactive role should have been played by the respondent public authority”.
Julka also recorded that the CGHS was also in the know of the e-mail address of the complainant and could have thus easily provided the information.
The CIC also referred to a decision of Delhi high court in J.P. Aggarwal v. Union of India (WP (C) no. 7232/2009) wherein it was held that “it is the PIO to whom the application is submitted and it is who is responsible for ensuring that the information as sought is provided to the applicant within the statutory requirements of the Act”. He wrote that the RTI Act makes the PIO the pivot for enforcing the implementation of the Act.
‘CPIO should ensure maximum assistance to applicant’
Julka also referred to another judgment of the Delhi high court in Mujibur Rehman vs Central Information Commission (W.P. (C) 3845/2007) in which it had said that “the court cannot be unmindful of the circumstances under which the Act was framed, and brought into force. It seeks to foster an “openness culture” among state agencies, and a wider section of “public authorities” whose actions have a significant or lasting impact on the people and their lives. Information seekers are to be furnished what they ask for, unless the Act prohibits disclosure; they are not to be driven away through sheer inaction or filibustering tactics of the public authorities or their officers.”
The Commission also noted that it should be the endeavour of the CPIO to ensure that maximum assistance should be provided to the RTI applicants to ensure the flow of information.
However, in the present case, Julka wrote in the order that “the Commission thus observed that there is complete negligence and laxity in the public authority in dealing with the RTI applications. It is abundantly clear that such matters are being ignored and set aside without application of mind which reflects disrespect towards the RTI Act, 2005 itself.” He therefore, directed the CGHS to furnish an updated status to the applicant within 30 days.
‘RTI division of ICMR defunct for weeks’
In a related development, RTI activist Das today complained about ICMR to the Chief Information Commissioner, saying the body has stopped responding altogether to queries filed about the health situation.
Stating that ICMR was playing a “pivotal role” in handling the COVID-19 situation, Das lamented that “it has been noticed that various RTI applications filed since March 2020 have not been answered to by the concerned officers of the public authority.”
Moreover, he said, “even applications concerning life and liberty of citizens, which requires furnishing of information within 48 hours, have not been attended to.”
Charging that “the RTI division of the ICMR has been defunct for weeks,” he pointed out how “the RTI applications are not even being transferred to the concerned CPIOs, let alone them being answered.”
‘Medical body has no right to curb people’s right to know’
Acknowledging that the current crisis was an extraordinary one, Das wrote that “this, however, does not give the public authority the right to curtail people’s right to know. Not without the sanction of law. And no such law is in force at the moment.”
He also wrote that other government departments that have been tackling this crisis have at least been transferring all pending RTIs to the concerned CPIOs. “But the ICMR has deliberately ignored to even do this, which is a serious infringement of people’s right to information.” He urged the CIC chief to look into this matter and pass appropriate directions to the ICMR.