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Amid Covid-19, Citizens Deprived of Democratic Right to Seek Information From Government

With India again under a lockdown due to Covid-19 cases surging, the importance of RTI is once again evident.
RTI

In the midst of the raging pandemic, panic-stricken citizens are running helter-skelter for basic medicines, life-giving oxygen and hospital beds. There is no information about what the government is doing to curb the virus or the availability of these vital items. States and UnionTerritories would do well to create applications and websites that are user-friendly in the local language so that people can access information at least on Covid-19. They are duty-bound to do so under Section 4 (1) (b) of the RTI Act 2005, writes RAJA MUZAFFAR BHAT reporting from Srinagar.

CHIEF Justice NV Ramana was instrumental in bringing the office of the chief justice of India under the ambit of the Right to Information Act (RTI). Through his judgments, he has always ensured justice delivery to aggrieved citizens, especially in public interest matters.

The Supreme Court, on October 14, 2019, had asked the centre and state governments to file a response on a plea seeking direction to establish RTI web portals in all states. The PIL filed by Pravasi Legal Cell, an NGO, aimed at enabling citizens, especially those living abroad, to file RTI applications online.

A three-judge bench headed then by Justice Ramana directed the Department of Personnel and Trainings and all state governments to file a reply within two weeks. The petitioner was asked to file a rejoinder thereafter. However, except for Delhi and Maharashtra, none of the states have created a facility for citizens to file RTI applications through the online mode, the Pravasi Legal Cell contended.

Online RTI applications

Under the RTI Act 2005, any citizen of India can request information from a public authority, which is required to reply as expeditiously as possible but not after 30 days [(Section 7 (1)].

It’s been almost 16 years since the Act was operational in India. Section 6 of the RTI law clearly says that a citizen can seek information electronically from any public authority.

Section 6 reads:

“A person, who desires to obtain any information under this Act, shall make a request in writing or through electronic means in English or Hindi in the official language of the area in which the application is being made, accompanying such fee as may be prescribed, to the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, of the concerned public authority.”

When there is a provision in the law itself to file an RTI application through an online portal or sending an application via email, how can public authorities not adhere to it?

Only central government departments and a handful of states receive RTI applications through a designated online portal, but a majority of state and Union Territories continue with obsolete ways of receiving RTI applications (by hand or via registered post). This is an insult to the much-hyped digital India programme of the Modi government. 

The PIL filed by the Pravasi Legal Cell was timely as NRIs or Indians working in foreign countries (pravasi bhartis) are virtually disabled from exercising their right to access information from public authorities.

Be Proactive

With India again under a lockdown due to Covid-19 cases surging, the importance of RTI is once again evident.

Daily statistics of new cases and deaths are staggering and breaking past records.

States with the highest positivity rate include Rajasthan (62.34%), followed by Sikkim (58.70%), Goa (46.69%), Dadra and Nagar Haveli (35.68%) and Nagaland (33.91%).

For states with the highest active cases, the positivity rate stands at 24.77% in Kerala, 24.19% in Maharashtra and 23.74% in Karnataka.

The weekly positivity rate for Delhi is also above the national average at 31.62%.

Contrary to this, 17 states and Union Territories have recorded a weekly positivity rate lower than the countrywide average. These include Odisha at 20.19%, followed by Telangana (17.96%), Uttarakhand (17.30%), Jharkhand (15.69%) and Meghalaya (15.63%).

Delhi remains one of the worst impacted regions of the country as it continues to reel under an acute shortage of medical equipment, especially oxygen.

J&K too is witnessing a huge surge and positive cases per day have almost touched 5,000 and a daily death toll of 50 as on May 7, 2021. Government offices, post offices, schools, colleges, universities, courier services and shopping malls are shut in most of the states. Public transport is off the roads.

Having already witnessed a similar lockdown in 2019 post the Article 370 abrogation, people in J&K are the worst sufferers during ongoing restrictions because the economy has virtually crumbled.

People have no information about what the government is doing to curb the pandemic. They want information about availability of life-saving medicines, oxygen concentrators, hospital beds, ventilators and medical oxygen. 

Democratic Right

As these details can’t be accessed through an online mode in most states and Union Territories, is it to be assumed that amid this pandemic, citizens will be deprived of their right to access information?

If the lockdown continues for the next six months, will people in 26 states and eight Union Territories be deprived of their democratic right to seek information from the government?

It is believed that the government came up with an online platform for citizens some days back which will help them find hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medicines.

According to an official government tweet, the services can be availed through the MyGov India website. The website, www.self4society.mygov.in/covid, is in its infancy and not very user-friendly. 

States and Union Territories would do well to develop applications and websites that are user-friendly in the local language so that people can access information at least on Covid-19 and health-related issues.

A few days back, the J&K government directed all private medical oxygen producers not to provide oxygen cylinders to citizens or NGOs working in the health sector.

This will now be supplied through respective district magistrates (DMs). But this will create a lot of inconvenience. The government claims that it will provide helpline numbers to citizens to facilitate the supply of oxygen cylinders, but we have had a very bad experience with these government helpline numbers.

Why can’t a dedicated web-portal be created by the government at the district level instead? I apprehend that people will now have to queue outside the offices of DMs and there will be favouritism and corruption while selecting the beneficiaries. 

Suggestions by UN

The UN recognises RTI as a fundamental human right under international law. Its importance is recognised in the Sustainable Development Goals Target 16.10, which calls on nation-states to “Ensure public access to information”.

UNESCO has been designated by the UN for monitoring and reporting on this target with regard to guarantees for, and implementation of, the right to information across the world.

The UN impresses upon member countries to establish user-friendly systems for providing information, For this purpose, RTI laws set out details such as how to make a request, how quickly a response needs to be provided and what charges may be levied. Amid the pandemic, the UN has given great importance to proactive disclosure of information.

UNESCO has suggested that countries should disclose a “range of information of public interest” and progressively increase this over time. Such disclosure should not be confused with government communications such as media liaisons or public health campaigns.

UNESCO has impressed on states that information disclosed proactively should be released routinely and in a format that is understandable and accessible in “medium, format and language”.

During a health emergency, this means going beyond merely posting information on a website since it is vital that key information reaches everyone.

SC Intervention

The Supreme Court had to intervene during this health crisis as there was complete disorder due to authorities having failed to provide oxygen to Delhi hospitals. 

The Court warned the centre that it would be compelled to take action if authorities did not provide 700 metric tonnes of medical oxygen to Delhi every day to help it meet its demands.

“Don’t force us to take coercive steps,” the apex court told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the centre. People don’t have basic information about the availability of oxygen concentrators, oxygen cylinders, Remdesivir injections, vaccines, etc. There is complete chaos and confusion across the country. 

To top it, oxymeters, surgical masks and hand sanitisers are sold at exorbitant rates. Let these rates be made available on the official websites of DMs and Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) in districts.

In a majority of states and Union Territories, CMOs, District Medical Officers or Civil Surgeons’ offices don’t even have dedicated official websites. This is condemnable. As all government institutions are almost shut, the role of online citizen services has gained momentum.

The government is duty-bound to make proactive disclosure about the availability of these essential items. This is mandatory under Section 4 (1) (b) of the RTI Act 2005.

In addition, government officers must respond to RTI applicants through an online mode or email. This is the need of the hour now.

The role of the judiciary has become crucial amid the pandemic. In addition to giving direction about the supply of medical oxygen to hospitals on a regular basis, the Supreme Court also needs to ensure that citizens have better access to information, especially Covid-19 related issues through digital and online platforms.

The article was originally published in The Leaflet.

(Raja Muzaffar Bhat is a Srinagar-based activist, columnist and independent researcher. He is an Acumen India Fellow. The views expressed are personal.)

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