Information commissions across country failed to help distressed people during pandemic: Rights organisation
A report released by rights organisation Satark Nagrik Sangathan said 21 out of 29 information commissions did not hold a single hearing during the first stages of national lockdown imposed in 2020
A report released by rights organisation Satark Nagrik Sangathan, released on the occasion of the 16th anniversary of the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, has revealed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were expecting information commissions across the country to providing them assistance to get information on all kinds of issues, ranging from availability of beds and essential medicines to government schemes and programmes, many of these panels have failed to live up to expectations.
“Patients were compelled to purchase essential drugs at exorbitant prices in the black market as there was no way to know about the availability of stock of medicines in hospitals. The pandemic highlighted the urgent need for accurate and easy-to-access information on the availability of hospital beds, essential drugs and medical equipment like ventilators in health facilities. It underlined the significance of information dissemination related to relief measures announced by governments and where public money is being spent in the efforts to combat the pandemic,” it said.
It added that an assessment of the functioning of the information commissions revealed that 21 out of 29 commissions in the country did not hold a single hearing during the first stages of the national lockdown imposed in 2020.
“While the Central Information Commission and some state commissions used audio and video conferencing to hear and dispose cases, most commissions did not make provision for hearing even urgent matters,” the report, titled Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India, 2021 said.
The report added that as relief and welfare programmes funded through public money became the sole lifeline of millions who suddenly lost income-earning opportunities after the lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, it became imperative that the poor and marginalised affected by the public health emergency had access to relevant information.
In such a scenario, it said, the role of information commissions became “crucial to ensure that people can obtain information on healthcare facilities, social security programmes and delivery of essential goods and services meant for those in distress”.
According to the report, while three information commissions – of Jharkhand, Tripura and Meghalaya – remained completely defunct as no new commissioners were appointed as vacancies arose, another three commissions – of Nagaland, Manipur and Telangana – remained without a head as the posts of chief information commissioners remained vacant.
Overall, the report, which analysed the functioning of all the 29 information commissions in the country, including the Central Information Commission, said 1,56,309 appeals and complaints were registered between August 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 by 25 information commissions for whom relevant information was available. During the same period, 1,35,979 cases were disposed by 27 commissions for whom information could be obtained.
Stating that the backlog of appeals and complaints has been steadily increasing in the information commissions, the report pointed out that 2,55,602 of these were pending on June 30, 2021 in the 26 information commissions, from which data was obtained.
The report also analysed the pendency and disposals by comparing them with the previous years. It said the 2019 assessment had found that as of March 31, 2019, a total of 2,18,347 appeals and complaints were pending in the 26 information commissions from which data was obtained.
Using the average monthly disposal rate and the pendency in commissions, the report said the time it would take for an appeal or complaint to be disposed was computed. This analysis revealed that the Odisha state information commission would take six years and months months to dispose a matter. Thus it said, “a matter filed on July 1, 2021 would be disposed in the year 2028 at the current monthly rate of disposal!”