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CIC pulls up ICMR for denying info on COVID task force, Covaxin trials

The Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) has pulled up the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) – the country’s nodal medical research body – for not sharing information on the workings of the National Task Force on COVID-19 and ICMR’s collaboration with Bharat Biotech.

ICMR and Bharat Biotech jointly developed the Covaxin COVID-19 vaccine.

Dealing with two separate appeals filed by the appellant, Aniket Aga, with the public information officer (PIO) of the ICMR in April, CIC Y.K. Sinha called the council’s replies in these matters “evasive and untenable, since they are not in consonance with the provisions of the RTI Act and cannot be accepted as such.”

Sinha said he was “not convinced by the blanket and generic denial of information by the PIO without offering any justification.”

He also warned the information officer to be more responsible when responding to RTI requests and chastised the first appellate authority.

In one of his appeals, Aga had asked for the minutes of all meetings of the National COVID-19 Task Force (NTF) and the minutes of all meetings of all groups under the NTF.

In response, the chief PIO said the details weren’t in the public domain. Aga said he filed his first appeal on May 3, 2021 – but it wasn’t adjudicated.

Aga then approached the commission with his second appeal. On September 1, he wrote saying the NTF’s working was in the public interest, since the body deals with crucial pandemic policy and technical issues.

After the PIO refused information, Aga said the information he’d sought should have actually been provided under section 4(2) of the RTI Act, but that the official had denied Aga’s request without invoking any exemption clause either.

Sinha recorded in his order that when asked, the ICMR official said the information had been denied because it was unavailable, but that an exemption should’ve been made under the RTI Act’s Section 8(1)(e). He also insisted important points from the NTF’s meetings have been published on its website since June 2021. But Aga contended that the PIO hadn’t cited any provisions of the Act.

In Aga’s second RTI appeal, he sought a copy of all agreements and/or memoranda the two bodies signed to develop and test Covaxin, and the total amount and various heads of expenditure the ICMR spent on these two activities.

He said he received no proper reply despite the fact that “terms of the agreement have already been made public in Parliament,” so the ICMR could have shared this information with him.

Aga also said the PIO hadn’t invoked an exemption clause, and simply made a statement of fact, and that the ICMR official didn’t abide by Section 7(8) of the RTI Act, which requires a PIO to give detailed, cogent explanations for rejecting applications.

Sinha recorded in his order that Aga’s submissions on record include documents that reveal details of ICMR’s royalties agreement vis-à-vis Covaxin, including key terms of the ICMR-Bharat Biotech memorandum.

He also directed the ICMR’s head of epidemiology and communicable disease studies, Samiran Panda, to conduct a “detailed examination and proper adjudication of the first appeals and to pass a reasoned speaking order, in terms of the provisions of the RTI Act, upon hearing both parties and on factual analysis of the issues.”

Finally, Sinha asked that he should receive a copy of the first appellate authority’s order by November 15, 2021. The Wire

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