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States Obligated To Provide Accurate Info On Deaths Occured During COVID But Bihar Govt. Reluctant To Do So: Patna High Court Issues Directions

Sparsh Upadhyay
19 Jun 2021 7:53 AM GMT
States Obligated To Provide Accurate Info On Deaths Occured During COVID But Bihar Govt. Reluctant To Do So: Patna High Court Issues Directions
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The Patna High Court on Friday observed that the Government of Bihar is most reluctant to put in the public domain the number of deaths that occurred in Bihar during the last one year, i.e. during the time of Pandemic Covid-19. "In our considered view, the resistance is uncalled for, for such action is neither protected by any law nor in consonance with good governance's...

The Patna High Court on Friday observed that the Government of Bihar is most reluctant to put in the public domain the number of deaths that occurred in Bihar during the last one year, i.e. during the time of Pandemic Covid-19.

"In our considered view, the resistance is uncalled for, for such action is neither protected by any law nor in consonance with good governance's settled principles," said the Court.

The Bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar reminded the State Government that to cover with the veil of secrecy, the common routine business is not in the interest of the public.

While reminding the Government that the right to information is a facet of Article 21 of the Constitution of India, the Bench also put forth the questions:

  • As to whether more than ten crore people of the State of Bihar have a right to know, on a digital platform, the number of deaths that occurred in Bihar during the time of Covid-19, and;
  • As to whether the Government has a corresponding duty to disclose either voluntarily or as mandated by law.

The Court noted that despite repeated assurances, the Digital Portal maintained by the Bihar Government (births and deaths and the state) was not being uploaded periodically by the functionaries under the relevant Statutes.

The Court further clarified that it was not concerned with the individual's right to upload information on the portal in these proceedings, rather, it was concerned with:

"Whether the functionaries authorized under the Statutes are uploading the information and whether such information, of course maintaining the confidentiality of the identity of the deceased, is made known through the Digital Portal to the general public or not. To this, there is no answer."

What is the reluctance to upload general information concerning all deaths?

Significantly, the Advocate General on June 12, submitted before the Court that the public representatives are not being responsible or accountable for providing information to be uploaded on the digital portal and that there is no mandate of law to disclose information of the number of deaths on the digital portal.

To this, the Court, while observing that the provisions of the Statutes (Acts) and the Bihar Registration of Births and Deaths Rules, 1999 are clear, remarked that the objection is legally unsustainable.

Further, the Court questioned the State Government that when World Health Organization and the Government of India can provide the status of Covid-19, why is it that the State should be reluctant to upload the information of all deaths on the official website?

Further, the Court observed:

"We are not unmindful that the information of fatalities arising out of Covid-19 is in the public domain. If that were so, then what is the reluctance to upload general information concerning all deaths that occurred during this period, be it for whatever reason."

The Court also stressed that the provision of the RTI Act casts a duty upon all public authorities to suo motu provide and disseminate information unless it is protected by law.

"Should not the Government have a more open and interactive website providing accurate, reliable and up-todate information to the general public?," the Court further added.

Significantly, the Court observed that the data collection process for the births and deaths is an important exercise, more so during the Pandemic COVID-19, the from the point of relief measures to be made available to the families of the deceased.

"Also, in maintaining the correct statistics so that we as a Nation can be prepared for the Third Wave of COVID Pandemic," added the Court.

The Court highlighted that various digital access programmes have been initiated by the Government of India and Government of Bihar and observed that all the existing/ ongoing governance initiatives have been initiated to align them with the principles of Digital India.

The Court also observed that in maintaining the correct statistics so that we as a Nation can be prepared for the Third Wave of COVID Pandemic.

Importantly, the Court stressed:

"Neither the Government, be it the State Government or the Union, nor us, including the common man can shirk their responsibilities in the dire situation that the entire Nation is facing during this pandemic"

The court, while noting that even if it is hypothetically assumed that Rules are not available to provide for making the information available to the general public, observed that it could come out with such legislation, subordinate, delegated or otherwise as it has legislative power and competence under Entry 30, List III, Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India.

In light of the discussion above, the Court issued the following directions:

  • The Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969 (Act No. 18 of 1969) and also the Right to Information Act, 2005, gives a right to a person in almost unequivocal terms of their access to information and therefore, the Digital Portals should be made accessible to the general public with regular and timely updates.
  • It is needless to say that private information of deceased individuals will still be protected under the Right to Privacy read into Article 21 of the Constitution but has to be balanced with 'General public awareness' and information dissemination.
  • The Government of Bihar is under an obligation to the citizens of India, more so the residents of the State, to provide information on the Digital Portal the number of deaths, be it for whatever the
  • reason, that have occurred during the COVID 19 Pandemic.
  • The State is under a duty under the Registration Act to facilitate the right of any person to cause a search, and for that to happen, the Digital Portal maintained by different entities must be updated immediately.
  • The concerned authority to take steps to integrate ease of access, in consonance with the larger aims of the Digital India program and others highlighted in our order.
  • The information to be updated regularly on the digital portal shall be done in line with the right to privacy, recognized under the Constitution.
  • Elected representatives upon whom an obligation has been placed, by relevant statutes/orders, as discussed, are duty-bound to disclose the number of deaths that occurred in their constituencies within twenty-four (24) hours.
  • The state is obligated to provide accurate information, fight the infodemic on the one hand, and heal the systemic neglect on the other.
  • The Government of Bihar shall take all necessary action for sensitizing the general public, especially in the rural areas, of their Constitutional and Statutory right of uploading and obtaining information on the digital portal.

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