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India's 21 of 29 RTI watchdogs didn't take up 'life and liberty' issues amidst lockdown

By Our Representative
A report on the status of the Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SICs) across India during the Covid-19 crisis, released by two civil rights organizations, Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Centre for Equity Studies, has said that of the 29 commissions set up under the Right to Information (RTI) Act , 21 have not held any hearings during during the lockdown period, currently in its fourth phase.
Suggesting that, under an extraordinary situation, the RTI Act assumes extraordinary importance, the report, which assesses ICs’ working up to May 15, says that despite Central and state government guidelines for different phases of lockdown, “only seven commissions out of 29 issued notifications to make provision for taking up urgent matters or those related to life and liberty. These were SIC and SICs of Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Manipur, Punjab and Telangana.”
Finding this especially problematic, the report regrets, “For millions of workers in the country engaged in the unorganized sector, the lockdown meant an instant cessation of income generating opportunities. Migrant workers walking back to their villages hundreds of kilometres away, carrying their children and belongings on their shoulders, have become the defining images of the humanitarian crisis gripping the country during the lockdown.”
Pointing out that for the poor and vulnerable “the sudden loss of livelihood has meant that relief and welfare programs funded through public money are their sole lifeline”, the report, prepared by Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri, Indrani Talukdar and Sagarika Ghatak, says that experience on the ground suggests “without relevant information, it is virtually impossible for people to access their rights and entitlements like rations, pensions and healthcare.”
The report finds that the 21 commissions that did not holding any hearings were Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Odisha, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.
Without relevant information, it is virtually impossible for people to access their rights and entitlements like rations, pensions, healthcare
The report says, the SICs of Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Telangana “were holding hearings and disposing appeals/ complaints on all matters”; in Haryana, only the chief was working; the SICs of Manipur, Punjab and Rajasthan “were available only for urgent matters or those involving life or liberty”; and the SIC of Andhra Pradesh was only taking up matters “on the basis of available documents, without holding any hearings.”
The report further says that the websites of 11 commissions out of 29 had “no information/ notification about the functioning of IC during lockdown.” These were the commissions of Assam, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
The report notes, “The SICs of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur and Sikkim informed us telephonically that notifications had been issued (but not uploaded on their websites)”, adding, “Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Manipur ICs shared a copy of their notifications”, adding, “The websites of 3 ICs -- Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland -- were not accessible during the lockdown even though attempts were made to reach the websites on different days.”
Calling this “extremely problematic during a time when offices are shut and the primary way for citizens to know about the functioning of commissions and the (re)scheduling of cases is through their websites”, the report regrets, the website of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh SICs has been inaccessible for several months now.
Continues the report, “Of the 29 ICs, two commissions -- Jharkhand and Tripura -- were found to have no commissioners for varying lengths of time. They were completely defunct as the serving information commissioner in both retired during the period of the lockdown.”
Then, the report says, there were four “headless commissions during the lockdown” -- Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, adding, “The SIC of Rajasthan has been functioning without a chief for more than 15 months, since December 2018. The chiefs of the Goa and Uttar Pradesh SICs retired in February 2020, while the chief of the Bihar SIC retired in July 2019.”

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