RTI regime failed India during Covid-19 – analysis
In the deadly jaws of a pandemic, when lives and livelihoods are at stake, the information law of a democracy is expected to fulfill its responsibilities: empower citizens and ensure transparency and accountability. The free flow of information is an essential component of crisis management. And this is a crisis like no other.
However, during these difficult times, instead of demonstrating its rigor and tenacity, the Right to Information (RTI) regime was not followed. People simply became passive consumers of media reports, television debates, advertisements, and press releases produced by various departments that cannot replace the transparency regime supported by the RTI Act. The need of the hour in such adversity is to share data across the country and respond to RTI inquiries to clarify doubts, dispel insecurity, and strengthen people’s faith in the information system.
After the closure was imposed on March 25, the Central Information Commission (CIC) was perhaps the only one of the 29 total commissions in the country that began work on April 20. According to a telephone survey conducted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), during the first and second phase of the blockade, the State Information Commissions (SIC) simply remained inactive.
Information on critical issues eluded the public. The Prime Minister’s Office denied a consultation, under the RTI, to seek details of the PM Cares fund, claiming that it is not a public authority, and the State Bank of India declined to provide these details because it was third-party information under fiduciary capacity. This violates the basic axiom that the public should have access to the details of a public fund. The CIC, in two separate decisions, had directed that information to consultations on PM and CM Relief Funds. The matter has been pending in the higher court since 2018, but the CIC decision was not suspended.
Other inquiries have not fared better. A query submitted to the Department of Financial Services (DFS) looking for details of suo motu Disclosure of the details of actual access to Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojna by beneficiaries has taken a rollercoaster ride from DFS to the rural development ministry to the economic affairs department, back to DFS and back to rural development. As RTI inquiries regarding the list of coronavirus disease treatment facilities (Covid-19) in the district were transferred from one department to another, the health minister issued a press release on health care facilities. at the national level.
Tens of thousands of unemployed and homeless migrant workers walked the highways and railroad tracks to their homes in the blazing summer heat with their children and humble belongings. Many perished, unrecognized and without regret, on their way. However, in response to a query under the RTI Act, the office of the Chief Labor Commissioner (CLC), under the Union Ministry of Labor and Employment, stated that it does not have state and district data regarding migrant workers This, despite CLC ordering regional chiefs based at 20 centers across the country to list all stranded migrant workers due to the three-day closure during the second week of April. The CIC ordered CLC on May 27 to post the information on the website.
Some videos showing police brutality by imposing restrictions on the movement of people have gone viral. Citizens need to know the truth and the measures taken against these police officers. Such information may only be available if a robust ITR regime prevails and relevant portals are updated with suo motu disclosures
During the Covid-19 scare, bewildered citizens deserve to be trusted. They have the right to know more about the country’s health system. For example, who is responsible for approving the government’s purchase of faulty test kits that jeopardized Covid-19 testing for days and providing low-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) to healthcare workers? first line they are hiring infection?
Those who are locked up need access to the outside world. State data on the movement of food grains and other essential elements was provided in the press releases. But people need to look at the distribution data at the district level and at fair prices. They need to know if there was indeed any deviation from the food grains, as alleged. The SICs could have served Yeoman right now by listening to such matters with priority.
Each of these queries related to healthcare, the PM Cares fund, welfare programs and immigrants should have been on the website portals. A broken RTI system during Covid-19 times failed to respond to correct the discomfort. The SICs remained inactive and the CIC did not take to reserve those responsible for the period.
The current health hazard is rapidly transforming into a huge socio-economic crisis, and the interaction between the government and the public, as well as the exchange of information, must increase appropriately. Government ministers and spokespersons cannot continue to be the sole disseminators of information. There has to be an institutional response through the RTI regime already in place.
RTI inquiries increased by 83.83%, from 8.86,681 in 2012-13 to 16,30,048 in 2018-19, indicating the growing faith of our people in the RTI system. But it is in times of crisis that the regime is really tried. The political executive and the information commissioners, therefore, must reflect deeply and reinforce the RTI machinery in the interest of the people and the nation in general.
Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer and Central Information Commissioner
The opinions expressed are personal.