The Central Information Commission (CIC) has slammed the Centre’s blanket denial of information related to a committee overseeing medical oxygen supplies during the pandemic, saying its rationale was “far fetched” and “unjustified”. In its order on Saturday, Information Commissioner Vanaja Sarna directed the Centre to respond to the Right to Information (RTI) request within ten days.
The RTI request filed by activist and freelance journalist Saurav Das in April 2021 sought information on a nine member Empowered Group set up a year earlier under the Chairmanship of the Secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade. When the first wave of the pandemic began, it was responsible for coordinating the supply of PPE kits, RT-PCR test kits, N-95 masks and gloves. It subsequently became responsible for the supply of medical oxygen as well. Mr. Das requested information on the dates, agenda and minutes of the committee’s meetings till date, and presentations made to the committee.
The Centre denied the request, citing the sections of the RTI law which allow exemptions on the grounds of national security, strategic interests, commercial confidences, intellectual property and Cabinet papers.
In a hearing on Saturday, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) argued that the Empowered Group was set up in a time of crisis to cut across the several arms of the government, ensure that bureaucratic hassles did not impede decision making, and brought together government and private entities, both domestic and foreign. “These proposals and deliberations contain highly sensitive information regarding technologies, strategies and processes to be adopted, regarding the commercial and costing aspects of different industries and commodities. The public disclosure of this information could greatly impede the scientific, strategic and economic interests of the state,” he said, adding that it could also irreparably harm the competitive position of government and private entities. Given that the committee’s discussions were deliberated at the highest level, it “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,” he added.
The CIC dismissed the Centre’s defence, saying that the citing of exemption on the grounds of Cabinet discussions “appears to be an afterthought which seems far fetched also”. The exemption cited related to national security was “also not justified”, it said. With regard to commercial confidence and intellectual property rights, the CIC said a blanket denial of all requested information was unjustified.
The CIC directed the CPIO to provide a suitable point-wise reply within 10 days, warning that if any particular point was denied, it should be suitably justified with the relevant clause. The Hindu