Even as India continues to be gripped by the threat posed by the Covid-19 epidemic, all but one of its 29 Information Commissions — established under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) — have gone inactive, reveal findings of a rapid survey conducted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
While the Central Information Commission (CIC) resumed hearings in appeal and complaint cases from April 20, its counterparts in states remain non-functional amid the ongoing coronavirus-induced nationwide lockdown.
The survey is based on telephonic calls made by CHRI to SICs and also includes conversations with a State Information Commissioner, local RTI activists, and journalists.
State Information Commissions (SICs) are constituted by state governments and are oversight bodies established under the RTI Act. Venkatesh Nayak, programme head for CHRI’s Access to Information Programme, tells Business Standard: “SICs are crucial because they are the final appellate authority in relation to implementation of the RTI Act by their respective state governments. Public authorities of only the central government and the Union territories — not states — fall under the jurisdiction of the CIC.”
Among crucial information not being made available would be foodgrain distribution data at the district and fair price shop level, note the surveyors.
The survey shows that phone lines to SICs in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Telangana and Tamil Nadu were active during the second phase of the lockdown. The Goa SIC had started working with a couple of junior-level staffers who were unsure when hearings would resume. They said none of the information commissioners or senior staff were attending office. Only one staffer was attending office in each of the SICs in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. All of them said they were unsure of the date when hearings would resume in their respective SICs.
SICs of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand were open during the first phase of the lockdown, but with only one or two employees each. A security guard answered the phone in Haryana and said no staff member was present because of the lockdown. The Uttarakhand SIC was manned by a couple of junior-level staffers who were unsure about the resumption of the SIC’s work.
During the second phase of the lockdown (which is in force at the time of writing of this report) nobody has answered calls made to the Uttarakhand SIC. An unidentified staffer at the office of the Haryana SIC stated that hearings might resume after the lockdown ends.
An interesting case emerged in Assam, where the SIC was open but the lone staffer refused to accept the second appeal a senior journalist wanted to submit. The staffer informed the journalist that there was no certainty when the SIC would resume work.
The survey also brought to light some glitches and outdated information on websites. Sikkim’s SIC website, for example, lists phone numbers of staffers who claim to no longer work there. A redirected call led to another individual who said they weren’t the SCIC of Sikkim. The phone numbers for the Bihar SIC were not listed. And the contacts listed for Odisha turned out to be invalid.
Five SICs — those of Assam, Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — are currently headless. The State Chief Information Commissioner’s post in these states has been lying vacant for several months.
The SICs of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, meanwhile, do not have functional websites. The website of the SIC of Nagaland was functional until recently, but it has stopped working of late.
“Transparency is not a privilege meant for less troubled times. The need for transparency is heightened during public health emergencies like Covid-19. Improving transparency at the macro and the micro level will boost people’s confidence in the intentions and ability of governments to tackle such emergencies,” says Nayak.