The Centre has denied the very existence of a committee set up to oversee medical oxygen supply during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The statement comes just two weeks after it argued strenuously before the Central Information Commission (CIC) against disclosing information about this committee on the grounds of strategic interests, commercial confidences, intellectual property and Cabinet papers.
Last week, the CIC slammed the government’s rationale for a blanket denial of information as “far-fetched” and “unjustified”, and directed a response within 10 days.
Now, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) says the committee does not even exist. On Friday, he claimed an “inadvertent error” due to an earlier “misreading” of the RTI application.
However, The Hindu has seen the DPIIT’s order dated April 4, 2020 , which indicates the committee, chaired by its then Secretary Guruprasad Mohapatra, did exist.
A DPIIT official, who was a member of the committee, also told The Hindu the panel had been constituted and held meetings.
The order to constitute the committee said its objective was “to review the existing production and supply of medical oxygen and cylinders in the country” and to ensure adequacy of production capacity, availability of oxygen gas cylinders and measures to augment their supply, a disruption-free supply chain and smooth storage, transportation and supply to end-users, and an effective communication mechanism with States through nodal teams constituted for the purpose.
Apart from DPIIT officials, the committee included a Health Ministry representative, two AIIMS doctors, and representatives of the All India Industrial Gases Manufacturers Association and the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization.
“The records of this committee must be made public as it handled the crucial issue of medical oxygen. Given its stated objectives, the committee clearly recognised the issues at stake back in April 2020, so what did they do about it? This gains significance in the light of the chaos and disaster caused by oxygen shortages during the second wave of the pandemic,” said activist and freelance journalist Saurav Das, who filed the initial RTI request, noting that the Supreme Court was ultimately forced to create its own taskforce to carry out the duties entrusted to this committee.
Mr. Das deplored the statement that the committee did not exist.
“Such mala fide denial of information shows that the government is adamant not to reveal it even after CIC’s order. Under the RTI Act, the officer is liable for penal action,” he said.
There are also subsequent orders from the Ministry of Home Affairs in September 2020 and statements from the Public Information Bureau, which indicate that an Empowered Group was later reconstituted under Mr. Mohapatra’s chairmanship in September 2020 to oversee medical oxygen supply.
As The Hindu had earlier reported, Mr. Das filed his RTI request in April 2021 , seeking information on the nine-member committee set up in April 2020 under the chairmanship of Mr. Mohapatra to ensure adequate availability of medical oxygen in the wake of the pandemic. He requested information on the members, dates, agenda, minutes and presentations of the committee’s meetings till date, as well as what steps it took to ensure adequate availability of oxygen.
On June 11, CPIO of the department Karan Thapar responded, refusing to disclose information, citing Section 8 (1) (a) that exempts information related to the “security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State” and Section 8 (1) (d) that exempts “information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property” unless warranted by the larger public interest.
After Mr. Das appealed his case, the CIC held a hearing on July 22, where the CPIO referred to the committee as the Empowered Group chaired by Mr. Mohapatra, which was set up to facilitate the supply of medical equipment and later to enhance the availability of liquid medical oxygen. As this group worked with “government and private entities, domestic and foreign” and dealt with “highly sensitive information regarding technologies, strategies and processes...and commercial and costing aspects of different industries and commodities”, the information could not be shared, the official said.
Mr. Thapar further argued that the information was exempt under Section 8 (1) (i), which refers to “Cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers”. In his submissions to the CIC, the CPIO also accused Mr. Das of being “aggressive without reason” and trying “to extort information by threatening and coercing public functionaries”.
In its order dated July 29 , the CIC dismissed the Centre’s argument as “far-fetched” and “unjustified” and directed the DPIIT to respond to the RTI request.
A week later, the CPIO issued a dramatic U-turn. “No such committee was set up in the month of April 2020 under the chairmanship of Secretary, DPIIT, Shri Guruprasad Mohapatra, to ensure adequate availability of medical oxygen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mr. Thapar’s August 6 response .
Each of Mr. Das’s requests for information was then dismissed with the statement, “Does not arise in view of above”. Mr. Thapar added, “Further, the inadvertent error on the part of the CPIO in the earlier reply dated 11.06.2021 , where the RTI application was misread is deeply regretted.”
Mr. Das said he would file a non-compliance petition with the CIC regarding the denial. On Monday, the CIC is also due to hear appeals against the Centre’s denial of information regarding procurement of vaccines and the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19, he added.