The Central Information Commission (CIC) has slammed the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) for having “no clue” about the origin of the government’s vaunted coronavirus tracing app, Aarogya Setu, and issued show cause notices to information officers in the ministry for their evasive replies to RTI requests on this issue.
“None of the CPIOs were able to explain anything regarding who created the App, where are the files, and the same is extremely preposterous.”Order of Information Commissioner dated 27 October
The CIC has also asked the National Information Centre (NIC) – which falls under MeitY – to explain how the ministry has no information about the creation of the app, even though the Aarogya Setu website claims that the platform is designed, developed and hosted by the NIC, with content owned, updated and maintained by MyGov (also under MeitY).
WHY WAS THE INFORMATION COMMISSION LOOKING INTO THIS?
The CIC’s order and observations related to a complaint by RTI activist and independent journalist Saurav Das, who had filed several RTI requests regarding the Aarogya Setu app.
On 1 August, Das had sent queries to the CPIOs at MeitY, asking for details and documents on the creation of the Aarogya Setu app, including the origin of the proposal, how it was approved, which government departments were involved, and copies of communications with private persons involved in developing the app.
The information officers failed to provide answers to any of his queries, only informing him on 7 August that the RTI application had been forwarded to the CPIO of the National E-Governance Division (NeGD) of the ministry.
On 2 October, after nearly two months, the NeGD said they did not have any information relating to his queries.
Das therefore filed a request for an urgent hearing at the CIC, in view of the “immense public interest” in the matter, given the privacy implications of the app’s collection of personal data of millions of users.
MINISTRY REVEALS IT HAS NO INFORMATION ON CREATION OF THE APP
The CIC conducted a hearing on 22 October, where information officers from MeitY were present, who basically went on to admit that the ministry had no information with it about the creation of the app, which was at one pointed touted as a major innovation in India’s fight against COVID-19, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging citizens to install it on their phones in some of his addresses to the nation.
The CPIO from the NeGD failed to explain why it had taken them so long to just say they had no information. The CPIO of the ministry was asked where the information relating to the creation of the app could be accessed, however:
“He also could not gave a plausible explanation except that the creation of the same involves inputs from NITI Ayog. He further could not explain as to how it is possible that the App was created and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has no clue about its origin.”
This failure to have any information on the app was considered by the CIC to be “extremely preposterous”, given the fact that the ministry claims to have been involved in its design and creation.
The CIC also acknowledged that the responses from the CPIOs and from the NIC on related queries had been evasive and that Das was right to point out that there was a concern about breach of privacy, given the use of the app by masses at large.
It then concluded that “the denial of information by all the concerned authorities cannot be accepted at all” and issued an interim order for the show-cause notices to the ministry’s information officers.
They will need to explain why penalties under Section 20 of the RTI Act should not be imposed on them “for prima facie obstruction of information and providing an evasive reply.”
MeitY put out a press release on Wednesday, 28 October in response to news reports about the CIC order and the comments therein. While it says that it is taking necessary steps to comply with the CIC order, it also states that “there should be no doubt with regard to the Aarogya Setu App and its role in helping contain COVID19 Pandemic in India.”
The press release notes that in the press releases and social media posts on 2 April whereby the app was launched, it was clarified that this was a public private partnership, and at all points since then as well, “it has been clearly mentioned that the Aarogya Setu App has been developed by NIC in collaboration with volunteers from Industry and Academia.”
It also states that the list of those involved with the app can be found on Github, where the source code was supposed to have been uploaded:
“The names of all those associated with the development of the App and management of the App ecosystem at various stages was shared when the code was released in Open/Public Domain and the same was shared widely in media also. The same can be accessed on https://github.com/nicdelhi/AarogyaSetu_Android/blob/master/Contributors.md.
Interestingly, in response to a separate RTI application filed by RTI activist Aniket Gaurav, which asked for the “Name of the person or group of persons who developed AarogyaSetu”, the NIC answered on 5 August that the list could be found at that same address on Github. The Quint has seen a copy of the response from the NIC’s CPIO, Swarup Dutta, which includes this response.
It is strange, therefore, that the CPIOs from the ministry, including Dutta, were unable to provide this response to Das’ RTI or to the CIC during hearings. The only difference is that Das had asked for more details in addition to this, including the origin of the proposal, the approvals granted and so on.