Right to information: The unspoken casualty of Covid-19 lockdown

With the lone exception of the Central Information Commission, its counterparts in the States did not display the same proclivity. As on 1 May 2020, 29 State Information Commissions were non-functional.

Right to information
Right to information

Perhaps one of the biggest, yet least talked about casualties of the COVID 19 lockdown has been the RTI Act and its functioning. While legal circles and the mainstream media have certainly covered the matter pertaining to the applicability of the RTI Act to the PM Cares Fund, a greater and even more disturbing scenario has largely gone unnoticed – There has been a virtual suspension of the RTI Act and its implementation across the country.

As far back as 1975, the Supreme Court in State of U.P. v. Raj Narain had held that “The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries.”

The single most important step towards public transparency and accountability in the history of our country came with the advent of the RTI Act in 2005. As the Supreme Court most rightly observed in Chief Information Commr. v. State of Manipur (2011), “As its Preamble shows, the Act was enacted to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority in order to strengthen the core constitutional values of a democratic republic. It is clear that Parliament enacted the said Act keeping in mind the rights of an informed citizenry in which transparency of information is vital in curbing corruption and making the Government and its instrumentalities accountable.”

The Act finally gave a statutory character to the citizen’s fundamental right of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

Today, amidst lockdown both the Governments at the Central and State levels have regressed to the era of sharing information with the citizenry on a “need to know” basis, thanks to the threat posed by COVID-19 epidemic.

Thus, it came as a rude shock when I was recently informed that the State Information Commission of Madhya Pradesh has ceased to function since the advent of the lockdown from March 22 onwards. To make matters worse, its website has also remained non-functional for the past eight months.

This is a blatant violation of Section 4 of the RTI Act, 2005 which mandates every public authority to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet.

Moreover, this was also a brazen abdication of the statutory duties of the State Information Commission as given in Section 18 & 19 of the Act of adjudication of complaints and appeals, inquiry and examination of records.

I immediately wrote to the State Information Commissioner of Madhya Pradesh on 5th June, 2020, requesting that this position be remedied at the earliest else legal recourse would have to be taken. I would also be taking up this issue in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, if we are fortunate enough to see its resumption.

With post offices shuttered and government departments working with skeletal staff, online access and facilitation would naturally have been the way forward. Yet, the Information Commission has been the casualty of choice.

The case of Madhya Pradesh is not an isolated one. Upon probing slightly deeper, it is shocking to discover that since the announcement of lockdown on March 22, most of the Information Commissions established under the Act have shut down. With the lone exception of the Central Information Commission, which resumed hearings in appeal and complaint cases from 20th April, its counterparts in the States did not display the same proclivity. As on May 1st, 2020, 29 State Information Commissions were non-functional.

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

Today, vis-à-vis our battle against COVID19, there are a multitude of issues plaguing the country which have been placed behind an opaque wall. For example, the plight of the migrant workers that has captured national attention.

There is little to no official data in the public domain about their numbers and the steps taken towards their well-being across the various districts in the country. Similarly, there is no transparent public data about the State-wise movement and distribution of food grains and other essentials.

Another area of concern is the faulty testing equipment and the poor quality and lack of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). Nothing is there to show the decision-making process that went into procuring these items, much less as to who is being held accountable. This comes across as especially disconcerting, since these are the main weapons of the frontline healthcare workers, who are at the forefront of the battle against the corona virus. With a rising number of doctors, nurses, paramedics and hospital staff testing positive, there needs to be accountability over their preparedness, health and safety.

In all probability, COVID19 is here to stay, and there is every possibility of continued movement restriction. It is high time that the State Information Commissions get their act together. The State Governments too, have a major role to essay in this regard.

A paltry few governments have put in place online RTI submission facilities like those at the Centre, and in Maharashtra and Delhi. The State Information Commissions of Assam, Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are rudderless, with the vacancy of the State Information Commissioner remaining vacant for several months now. Perhaps worst off are Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, who do not even have functional websites.

Transparency and accountability are not a cherished joy reserved for normal times. Neither is it a hidden treasure to be locked away behind closed doors. Increased transparency would only serve to instil confidence in the hearts and minds of the public at large that the State is doing its best to weather the storm during this unprecedented emergency.

Vivek Tankha is a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) from the Congress Party. A senior advocate practising in the Supreme Court, he has also served as Advocate General of Madhya Pradesh and the Additional Solicitor General of India.