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

The Union government has thus far been reluctant to share details of meetings of the panel which was set up to oversee preparations for and management of COVID-19.

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New Delhi: The Central Information Commission has directed the Union government to provide within 10 days details of meetings, discussions and agendas of the empowered nine-member group sub-committee on oxygen that was set up to ensure adequate availability of oxygen in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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 said all records of discussions, agenda of meetings, and minutes of meetings of the committee, formed under the chairmanship of the secretary of the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), should be provided to transparency activist Saurav Das.

The direction assumes significance as until now, the Union government has been withholding information pertaining to this high-powered panel despite the shortage of oxygen leading to hundreds of deaths, especially during the second wave.

In his application under the Right to Information Act, Das had on April 24 asked the DPIIT to provide details about the functioning of the nine-member committee that was set up in April 2020. He had asked the list of exact dates on which the Committee met, certified copies of the agenda of its meetings, presentations made before the group and minutes of the meetings.

The applicant 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.

It was also submitted 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”, central information commissioner Vanaja N. Sarna recorded in the 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, the application 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.

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.

Representative image of RTI. Illustration: The Wire

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.

Cursory reply failed to amplify reasons, ruled 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. This section 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 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.

Incidentally, Das had last year also sought information pertaining to the official records of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration (NEGVAC) for COVID-19. But that too was denied.