The Central Information Commission, the apex body dealing with Right To Information (RTI), is set to resume its full schedule of hearings via video conferencing from 20 April as per the regular format, The Quint has learnt. The Commission had partially resumed hearing cases from 10 April.
However, it appears from the information provided on the CIC’s official website that only two out of the seven commissioners – Chief Information Commissioner Bimal Julka and Information Commissioner Vanaja Sarna – have been hearing cases during the lockdown period.
While hearing of cases have resumed partially, the processing and response to RTI queries has come to a complete halt. Public Information Officers of government and public sector departments have been unable to go to work or access files.
RTI activists told The Quint that access to information at a time of crisis such as the COVID-19 induced lockdown makes it critical that information relating to essential commodities and services, especially pertaining to food and ration supplies, are made available proactively by the government.
“Unless people know how much ration they are supposed to get, unless they know the stock of ration that has reached the shop, and unless they have access to records of ration it is impossible to access ration.”Anjali Bharadwaj, RTI Activist
The CIC has held four meetings via video conference since the nationwide lockdown commenced on 25 March. Of the four, a meeting was held on 7 April “to resolve urgent issues arising due to the lockdown” where civil society representatives were also invited to provide suggestions.
Among the issues discussed were:
- Issue of notices and listing of cases for disposal of RTI second appeals
- Arrangements for cleaning and sanitation in the CIC building
- Arrangement of passes for the staff for movement, whenever necessary
- Operation of e-office
- Settlement of pending claims
- Interaction with civil society representatives
Proactively Disclose Info On Essentials: Civil Society Appeals
Four civil society representatives, Anjali Bhardwaj, Venkatesh Nayak, Subhash Chandra Agrawal and Commodore Lokesh Batra were consulted for their suggestions on operating during the lockdown period.
Two urgent appeals echoed by all all the representatives were the need for proactive disclosure of information, under Section 4 of the RTI Act, especially those related to food, essential supplies and health services. The second is for cases related to life and liberty to be heard on priority.
“What is really important is that government put out information on websites and also through other means easily accessible to people – posters, boards, public announcements – so that people actually get to information about what is supposed to be delivered to them,” Bhardwaj told The Quint.
Bhardwaj pointed out that reports by Dilli Rozi Roti Adhikaar Abhiyaan have revealed that a lot of ration shops are not opening because they say there is no stock of ration. “In the absence of information about the quantities of stock in godowns of Food Corporation of India and at ration shops, it is impossible to ensure all people get their ration supplies,” Bhardwaj added.
The Commission, in its minutes of meetings on 7 April, also considered issuing advisories to all ministries and departments “for proactive suo motu disclosures under section 4 of the RTI Act during the lockdown period to remove all ambiguities in the access to essential services (food, shelter, water, medical, sanitation, etc) to the citizens.”
Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd) also suggested “E-post can be made use of, since the normal delivery of letters is not taking place, due to unavailability of transport connectivity during the lockdown.”