On Tuesday, flummoxed by the inability of government officials to furnish details of who had created the Aarogya Setu app and where files were stored, the Central Information Commission (CIC) issued notices to Central Public Information Commissioners (CPIOs), National E-Governance Division (NeGD), Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and the National Informatics Center (NIC) demanding why action should not be taken against them.
An interim order passed by the CIC said, “None of the CPIOs were able to explain anything regarding who created the App, where are the files, and the same is extremely preposterous.”
The CIC was “of the view that it is necessary to identify the source/ custodian of information in respect of the complainant’s request for obtaining access to records under this Act. The addressees cannot simply wash their hands off by stating that the information is not available with them. Some effort should have been put in to find out the custodian(s) of the information sought, by the concerned public authorities when apparently they are the relevant parties.”
The CIC ordered, “In view of the above observations, the Commission is constrained to issue a show cause notice to the concerned CPIOs 1. Shri S.K Tyagi, Deputy Director and CPIO, 2. Shri D K Sagar, Deputy Director Electronics 3. Shri R A Dhawan, Senior General Manager (HR & Admn) and CPIO NeGD 4. Shri Swarup Dutta, Scientist F and CPIO NIC to explain why penalty u/s 20 of the RTI Act should not be imposed on them for prima facie obstruction of information and providing an evasive reply.”
This was in response to an application filed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) demanding details of the app’s creators such as:
a) origin of proposal,
b) approval details,
d) people, govt. departments involved,
e) file notings related to the app,
f) comments on files by various officers,
g) copies of communications between private people involved in making/developing the app and government departments concerned, etc.
h) copies of request for collaboration with people from industry who have helped in making this app
i) all communications received from all contributors/advisers of this app who have helped make this app.
The RTI application also sought information about the law under which the app was created or if there is a proposal to enact such a law.
But the response from the officials was evasive with the NIC, the purported developer of the app itself stating it had no information about the creation of the app! The Department of Electronics for its part passed the application to NeGD who just said the information sought does not relate to them. Therefore, the applicant moved CIC with a complaint requesting an urgent hearing “due to the immense public interest in the matter and need for immediate public scrutiny. He also had pointed out that any failure by the public authorities to perform their duties as outlined in the Protocol, 2020 and its failure to inform the usage of people’s personal and user data will have a severe and irreversible detrimental effect on people’s right to privacy and therefore their fundamental right to life and liberty. He also submitted that the Aarogya Setu App will be rendered useless once the pandemic is over. In such a situation, if the normal time period of waiting is followed, it would take almost 2 years for the first hearing to come up before this Commission. He further submitted that this would lead to the matter becoming infructuous and of no use.”
The CIC held a hearing where the complainant was present over video conferencing. The respondents were: Shri S.K Tyagi, Deputy Director and CPIO, Shri D K Sagar, Deputy Director Electronics and Shri R A Dhawan, Senior General Manager (HR & Admn) and CPIO NeGD.
In its interim order the CIC observed, “After hearing the averments of all the concerned parties and also the CPIO NIC who was present in this case on the basis of oral direction by the Commission, the denial of information by all the concerned authorities cannot be accepted at all. It is relevant to mention here that Sec 6(3) of the RTI Act cannot be used by public authorities to push off the matter.”
Section 6(3) of the RTI Act says, “Where an application is made to a public authority requesting for an information,— (i) which is held by another public authority; or (ii) the subject matter of which is more closely connected with the functions of another public authority, the public authority, to which such application is made, shall transfer the application or such part of it as may be appropriate to that other public authority and inform the applicant immediately about such transfer: Request for obtaining information. Provided that the transfer of an application pursuant to this sub-section shall be made as soon as practicable but in no case later than five days from the date of receipt of the application.”
The CIC’s interim order further noted, “The Commission observes that it is a current issue and it is not possible that there was no file movement while creating this App, a citizen cannot go round in circles to find out the custodian. The CPIO, NIC’s submissions that the entire file related to creation of the App is not with NIC is understandable, but the same submissions if accepted from MeITY, NeGD and NIC in toto, then it becomes more relevant to now find out how an App was created and there is no information with any of the relevant public authorities.”
Taking to task the errant officials, the order continues stating, “The Commission observed that none of the CPIOs provided any information. Therefore, the Commission directs the CPIO, NIC to explain this matter in writing as to how the website https://aarogyasetu.gov.in/ was created with the domain name gov.in, if they do not have any information about it. Moreover, the registry is directed to send an e-mail to the e-mail idsupport.aarogyasetu.gov.in as mentioned in the website directing them to send the concerned authority to be present before the Commission on the next date of hearing.”
The CIC oobserved, “Furthermore, as per the website https://aarogyasetu.gov.in/ it is mentioned that the content is owned, updated and maintained by the MyGov, MeitY. Therefore, Shri Tyagi is directed to explain in writing who is the concerned CPIO to explain regarding MyGov, MeiTY maintaining the app. The CPIO NIC also should explain that when in the website it is mentioned that Aarogya Setu Platform is designed, developed and hosted by National Informatics Centre, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, Government of India, then how is it that they do not have any information about creation of the App.”
The entire interim order by the CIC may be read here:
All of this is especially significant given how there has been a push by various government agencies to download the app. In fact, the Prime Minister himself had included it in his famous ‘Saptapadi’ to fight the Coronavirus. During the third phase of the lockdown the Ministry of Home Affairs had passed an order making it mandatory for public and private sector employees to download the app. This led to a representation by 45 organisations and over 100 individuals to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) raising privacy concerns.