The Government of Bihar is greatly unwilling to put in the public realm, the accurate data of deaths that occurred in Bihar during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Patna High Court observed.
By: Sachin Jain, Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi
The Bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar reminded the State Government that the right to information as embodied in Article 19 of the Constitution of India is also a part of Article 21.
The Bench also put forward questions, firstly, 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 secondly, whether the Government has a corresponding duty to disclose as mandated by law.
The Patna High Court also noted that even after continuous affirmations, the Digital Portal maintained by the Bihar Government, the valid statistical data was not being uploaded sometimes.
Furthermore, the bench clarified that it was not only concerned with the right of the individual to upload information on the portal, rather, but it was also 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.”
Considerably, the Advocate General on June 12, submitted that no public representatives are responsible or answerable for providing information to be uploaded on the portal and that there is also no mandate of law anywhere to publish data of deaths on the portal. The court finely remarked this objection legally unsustainable while observing the provisions of the Statutes (Acts) and the Bihar Registration of Births and Deaths Rules, 1999.
“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 observed.
The Bench also emphasized that the provisions of the Right to Information Act put a great duty on all public authorities to provide and communicate required information unless it is protected by law. The data collection process for the births and deaths is a crucial exercise, especially during this Pandemic time.
“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 underlined that various digital access programmes as initiated by the Government of India and Government of Bihar that are existing or ongoing mainly initiated to align them with the principles of Digital India.
Greatly, the Court emphasized that “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 Bench, while citing 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.
Concluding the above discussion, 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 regarding the number of deaths, be it for whatever the reason, that has 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 to 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.