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Though most state information commissions claim that they have opened their doors on May 1, they are non-functional. This has led to many issues, including that of migrants, being placed behind an opaque wall

By Neeraj Mishra

“The public has a right to know whatever decisions I take. It has the right to ask whatever it wants from me.”

—Prime Minister Narendra Modi

While the sentiments behind this statement are well-appreciated, it has not stood the test of transparency as accorded by the Right to Information Act, 2005. All questions regarding the PM Cares Fund have been blocked and gone unanswered on the grounds that it is not a public fund answerable to public queries. While the debate over this rages, it has thrown up another COVID-related development riling RTI activists: Information Commissions in most states have not been working for the past three months.

On the face of it, most Commissions claim to have opened their doors on May 1 after Lockdown 2, but in effect, they have remained non-functional and are unable to hear appeals online or through video-conferencing owing to various reasons. The case of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh is particularly worrisome as their websites have not been working for nearly a year. Others may have their websites running, but there are no information updates about cases or disposal since March 23.

Most Commissions have not even been able to put together a video facility for disposal of cases. This, when most queries that originate at the district level or pre-appeal level can easily be addressed online. With most governments striving to shift records online, it will be a good start if RTI queries are also dealt with in this way instead of the merry-go-round of paper files.

Former advocate-general of MP and Rajya Sabha member Vivek Tankha took up the issue with the MP government and now wants to raise it in the Monsoon Session of Parliament as well. “While we have people discussing RTI that is related to PM Cares, there has been no focus on the working of State Commissions. This defeats the very purpose of the enactment of the Act,” he told India Legal. He wrote a scathing letter to MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and MP Chief Information Commissioner AK Shukla.

Shukla replied saying he asked the National Informatics Centre and the MP Council of Science & Technology to fix the website, but nothing had been moving. With Tankha’s letter, matters moved at a faster pace and the State Information Commission hopes to go online soon. Chouhan has asked the General Administration Department to get cracking and ensure that not only is the website up and functioning, but that complaints are registered and disposed online. Informally, sources in the Commission told India Legal that more MPs from other states will have to take an interest in their State Commissions to put things on track.

With the lone exception of the Central Information Commission, which resumed hearings in appeal and complaint cases from April 20, its counterparts in states did not display the same proclivity. Only a few state governments have put in place online RTI submission facilities like those at the centre, Maharashtra and Delhi. State Information Commissions of Assam, Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are rudderless, with the positions of the Information Commissioner remaining vacant for several months now.

Tankha said: “It is especially disheartening to see that at a time of a public health crisis, various State Information Commissions have abdicated their role as champions of transparency when, in fact, they are needed the most.” 

In the context of Covid-19, there are many issues plaguing the country which have been placed behind an opaque wall. All questions related to the plight of migrant workers have been ignored and left for the courts to decide with incomplete supporting data.

For instance, there is little or no official data in the public domain about migrants and the steps taken towards their well-being across various districts of the country. Similarly, there is no public data about the state-wise movement and distribution of food grains and other essentials. What is being handed out by the state governments’ PR machinery is being lapped up by the media without any reliable body to provide the true picture.

Even the Delhi government is unable to provide correct data, as exposed by several media outlets in terms of deaths and the spread of the virus. It appears there is a vast difference between the official data being handed out by the government and the actual data based on verification at cremation sites. A functioning Commission would have ensured that the government was on its toes.

Consider what is happening in Indore with the complete absence of queries and public questioning. The government has not only abdicated its responsibility to keep proper records of patients and spread, it has brazenly defied any attempt by people to raise questions over its preparedness and subsequent actions. 

Another area of concern is the faulty testing equipment and poor quality and scarcity of personal protective equipment. There is no evidence to show the decision-making process that went into procuring these items, much less as to who is being held accountable. This is shocking as these are the main weapons for frontline healthcare workers against the coronavirus. With a rising number of doctors, nurses, paramedics and hospital staff testing positive, there needs to be accountability over their preparedness, health and safety. Most states are spending huge amounts on constructing district-level Covid hospitals and sourcing all medicines and medical equipment. It has given rise to allegations of corruption just like pre-RTI days. With no one to watch over them, local officers and suppliers have become fearless of checks and counter-checks.

In all probability, Covid-19 is here to stay and there could be continued movement restriction. It is high time State Information Commissions get their act together. Information is an important part of the battle against corona and our preparedness and it can’t be left to chance just because our constitutional bodies are unable to go online.

Lead picture: Central Information Commission

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