Appoint Nodal Officer for publication of Covid-19 info: Central Information Comission to MOHFW

The advisory came after the CIC took cognizance of the matter after an RTI to the MOHFW to publish the list of dedicated Covid-19 hospitals and treatment centers failed to get a reply

Covid 19Image

The news coming out of India during the pandemic just shows the massive disorganization there is between the Centre and the states. While States, UTs and the Centre have made Twitter their official platform for putting up information heap on heap, they have not considered making a central database of information related to hospitals and treatment.

In effect, where there should be one portal with the list of hospitals and treatment centers by state and city for easy navigation, there only statements by Ministers claiming the number of hospitals, treatment centers or isolation beds in the country. If one has to access such information, one has to be ready to dig in on news reports, Twitter or websites of various states and their municipal corporations. However, this is not possible for people looking to get admitted on an emergency basis and most of the patients are left hunting and going from hospital to hospital, with some eventually losing their lives.

In light of this, after an RTI application filed by Venkatesh Nayak asking the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW), to furnish the list of designated COVID Hospitals and treatment centers across the country failed to evince a satisfactory reply, he approached the Central Information Commission (CIC) which issued an advisory to the MOHFW to fill the information gap and furnish the required information for the benefit of the citizens of the country, reported Nayak, writing for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

Nayak said that during the second phase of the lockdown, various media reports pointed out to the difficulties people faced in finding the designated Covid-19 hospitals. He said that the list of the same was also not published on the MOHFW website. In light of this, he filed an RTI application on April 17, 2020 asking the MOHFW for the following information.

1) The district-wise number of hospitals and healthcare facilities called by any other name, designated as COVID-19 treatment centres as on date;

2) The postal addresses and telephone numbers of the hospitals and healthcare facilities referred to above; 

3) The criteria applied for determining whether or not a hospital or a healthcare facility should be designated as a COVID- 19 treatment centre; 

4) The district-wise names of hospitals and health care facilities whose designation as COVID-19 treatment centres has been withdrawn as on date; and

5) The reasons for withdrawing the designation of every hospital and health care facility referred to at para no. 4 above.

Back and Forth

Since the information dealt with life and liberty of individuals, he requested the Ministry to publish the same on its portal within 48 hours. However, unfortunately, his application was passed on by the MOHFW to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) who didn’t give him any reply. In light of this, he wrote to the CIC. Meanwhile, his application was sent back by the DGHS to the hospital section of MOHFW which transferred the application to the Public Information Officers of the Safdarjung Hospital, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital and Lady Hardinge Medical College and Associated Hospital (LHMC) in Delhi. A week later he received a reply from LHMC to look up the list on the MOHFW website.

CIC intervention

Seeing this, Nayak sent an additional submission to the CIC stating that the public authorities were only going back and forth on his request. Apart from the media reports that carried information of people who passed away waiting for hospitals, Nayak also mentioned that different ministers had furnished details of number of Covid-19 hospitals at different times. This, he said was only possible if there was a list of such hospitals available with the public authorities. He also stated to the CIC that the ICMR had displayed a list of country-wide COVID testing centres on a Google map with their addresses so there was no reason for them to comply and publicly furnish the list of the hospitals for the public.

In light of this, the Chief Information Commissioner, Bimal Julka held a hearing on June 1, 2020 through a WhatsApp call where the public authorities responding to Nayak’s RTI were also present. All of them denied having information about the list of dedicated Covid-19 hospitals and treatment centres and also said they didn’t know about the statements of the Union Ministers.

Expressing its disappointment in the way the matter was handled and the matter was shuttled from one department to the other, the CIC advised the MOHFW to –

“…the Commission advises the Secretary, M/o H&FW to designate an officer of an appropriate seniority as a Nodal Officer to examine the matter and suo motu disclose the information sought in the RTI application on the website of the Public Authority within a period of 15 days from the date of receipt of this order in the larger public interest.”

He also said, “It is essential that the decisions themselves and the senior decision makers involved are thoroughly documented in order for the Governments to remain accountable both during and after the crisis for future generations to be able to learn from these actions.”

Julka also pulled up the government actors for their incapability to provide the necessary information, saying, “Information seekers are to be furnished what they ask for, unless the Act prohibits disclosure; they are not to be driven away through sheer inaction or filibustering tactics of the public authorities or their officers. It is to ensure these ends that time limits have been prescribed, in absolute terms, as well as penalty provisions. These are meant to ensure a culture of information disclosure so necessary for a robust and functioning democracy.”

Reminding PIOs of their duty, Julka stated, “The undersigned is directed to say that the responsibility of a public authority and its public information officers (PIO) is not confined to furnish information but also to provide necessary help to the information seeker, wherever necessary.”

Julka also stated that there was an urgent need to compile, collate and consolidate the information sought in the RTI application and publish it on the website of the MOHFW as this would be mutually beneficial not only for the government but also scientists, researchers, academicians, historians and law makers among others.

The complete advisory by the CIC may be read below.


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