CIC | Centre’s denial on information relating to committee set up to ensure adequate availability of medical oxygen during COVID-19, is justified? Succinct Report

Central Information Commission (CIC): Vanaja N. Sarna (Information Commissioner), observed that,

For a CPIO to be able to ascertain the impediment to life and liberty of a person, there ought to be some consideration between the information seeker and the person whose life and liberty is at stake.

Appellant in the present matter stated that a 9-member committee was set up in April 2020 to ensure the adequate availability of medical oxygen in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

With respect to the above, applicant sought certain information.

Due to non-provision of the information sought under Section 8(1)(a) and (d) of the RTI Act, second appeal was filed.

Analysis, Law and Decision

Commission observed that,

“…life and personal liberty are the most valuable possessions of an individual. The value for life, liberty and property are not merely a norm or a policy of the State but an essential prerequisite of any civilized society.”

Coram relied on the decision of this Commission in Venkatesh Nayak v. Department of Defence, 24-07-2019,

“Commission remarked at this instance that the instant RTI Application has been filed on the grounds that it concerns life and liberty of a person, however, it is not clear from the facts on record as to how life and liberty of a third party Lt. Col. Dharamvir Singh concerns the Appellant.

 

 Commission clarified that it is not the locus standi vis-a-vis the RTI Act that is being questioned but locus standi of the Appellant vis-à-vis the life and liberty of Lt. Col. Dharamvir Singh. In other words, Commission inquired if the affected person or his wife who allegedly filed the FIR reached out to the Appellant to pursue their case or if the Appellant is aware of what prevented the affected party or his wife from seeking this information.

 

 It may be noted that since every case involving the life and liberty of an individual will not invariably concern human rights violation, the considerations advanced by the Appellant to contest locus standi on the claim of human rights violation of the said officer is deemed as extraneous in the instant case.

 

 For a CPIO to be able to ascertain the impediment to life and liberty of a person, there ought to be some consideration between the information seeker and the person whose life and liberty is at stake.”

Further, in the matter of Sehar Singh v. PMO, while dealing with the query of “when is the question of life and liberty to be considered a matter of concern?” laid down the following parameters:

“-The RTI application be accompanied with substantive evidence that a threat to life exists (eg. Medical report).

-If, the claim of concern for life and liberty is not accepted in a particular case by the public authority, the reasons for not doing so, must be given in writing while disposing of the application.”

Conclusion

In the instant matter, in view of the above discussion, the Commission came to the conclusion that the Parliament has made a very special exception for cases involving “life or liberty of a person” so that it would be used only when an imminent threat to life or liberty is involved.

Coram added that appellant referring to the matter as being related to the public at large, and not ‘a person’ as specified in Section 7(1) proviso and in the interest of preventing the damage caused by pandemic is not sufficient to invoke this particular clause of 48 hours reply timelines, when apparently, the Appellant failed to substantiate as to how information sought in the instant RTI Application has a bearing on his life and liberty or of any other person.

Further, the Commission stated that the appellant also failed to quote any particular instance in which any individual related to him was affected due to non-disclosure of the information. Therefore, the life and liberty of whom the appellant was pleading for was non-existent.

Though, the Commission found the matter to be of greater public interest. 

In the opinion of Commission, the matter was unprecedented and hence the appellant’s plea that disclosure of information would have helped in holding discussions with the Government is far stretched.

Whether there were enough steps taken by the authority or not in ensuring supply of medical oxygen?

Commission answered that the above-stated question was outside its jurisdiction.

Now, since the matter of life and liberty was rejected, Coram found the CPIO’s response on time. Though the delay was due to the ill health of CPIO.

Concluding the matter, Commission could not find any relation nor as a matter of fact, any justification of concerns of life and liberty of any person and therefore, there was no question of applicability of the proviso of Section 7(1).

CPIO vide letter dated 11.06.2021 had provided a cursory reply claiming exemption u/s 8(1)(a) and (d) and had failed to amplify the same with reasons. The fact of the reply being timely is justified but the denial was not justified in his reply. Further, he also failed to record his reasons for rejecting the applicant’s request to consider the same under the clause of “life and liberty”. The CPIO is, therefore, cautioned to be careful in future and ensure that he follows the provisions of the RTI Act implicitly.

CPIO contended that “…the proposals considered by the empowered group contain commercial business, technological and strategical information pertaining to several government and private entities which qualifies as commercial confidence and/or intellectual property and the disclosure of the same would impair and irreparably harm the competitive position of such government and private entities constituting third parties. Thus, such information has been exempted from being disclosed u/s 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act.”

Further it was submitted that,  High level discussions of the empowered group frequently form part of the discussions within the highest decision-making body to avert and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 pandemic in the country and thus must be protected from disclosure given the larger intent to protect such information from being misused or being adversely used against the interest of the state.

Lastly, the Commission directed the CPIO to provide a suitable point-wise reply to appellant within 10 days. Coram added that any information if denied completely should be suitably justified with the application of the relevant clause.

In view of the above discussion, appeal was disposed of. [Saurav Das v. CPIO, DPIIT; CIC/DOIPP/A/2021/625997; decided on 29-07-2021]


Advocates before the Commission:

Appellant: Present over phone

Respondent: Karan Thapar, Deputy Secretary and CPIO, present over the phone

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