NEW DELHI—During the COVID 19 lockdown, India seems to have slid back to an age where information is disclosed to citizens only on a ‘need to know basis’ by government officials instead of adhering to the ‘people’s right to know’ principle, said right to information activist Venkatesh Nayak in an interview with HuffPost India.
Nayak made these remarks while responding to questions over email about the recent advisory issued by the Central Information Commission (CIC) to the Narendra Modi government to release data about migrant workers who continue to remain stranded across India.
In its legally binding advisory issued last week, the CIC asked the Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC), an office under the labour and employment ministry tasked with workers’ welfare, to upload on its official website all data it has about migrant workers who are stranded across the country.
The CIC issued this advisory in response to a complaint filed by Nayak about being denied information that he had sought through an RTI application filed in the chief labour commissioner’s office. While issuing the advisory, the CIC criticised the CLC’s office and said it is “pained to see such a callous and non-serious attitude of the CPIO while handling the RTI application”, especially since it is about migrant workers. As per the RTI law, CPIO is short for Central Public Information Officer.
Nayak filed an application nearly two weeks after the Chief Labour Commissioner, on 8 April, wrote a letter to his regional colleagues seeking information within three days about migrant workers who were stranded across India in relief camps, their workplaces or localities where they are generally ‘clustered’.
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The RTI activist’s application sought this information by requesting that it be classified into age, gender, sectors, native districts and states. An official in the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office responded that the information is not available and cannot be provided. The CIC criticised this and asked the official to provide information “having regard to the peculiar circumstances prevalent in the country.”
Reflecting on this and similar such experiences, Nayak told HuffPost India in response to a question that, notwithstanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortations to officials to take the RTI applications seriously, “The culture and mindset of secrecy has not been discarded despite 15 years of implementation of the RTI Act which was brought in to change the paradigm of governance—the very goals that the NDA espoused in 2014 and again in 2019. The bureaucracy has not delivered on this promise satisfactorily.”
Specifically referring to the experiences of information dissemination by Modi government officials during the coronavirus lockdown, Nayak noted that “we seem to be sliding back into the age of information disclosure on a “need to know basis” as determined by the authorities rather than prioritising implementation of the “people’s right to know” principle which the RTI Act seeks to embed in governance.”
Making the data public is an important first step towards devising policy solutions for the millions of migrant workers who have not yet gone back home and are out of work.
But why did he file an RTI application asking for the data about stranded migrant workers to be released on the Chief Labour Commissioner’s website? Nayak explained that, “making the data public is an important first step towards devising policy solutions for the millions of migrant workers who have not yet gone back home and are out of work.”
The activist, who is Programme Head of the Access to Information Programme at the non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, noted that migrant workers who are still stranded across India also need to be “fed, clothed and treated for illnesses, including possible COVID-19 infection, just like any other citizen in the country.”
These activities can be planned “only if reliable data is collected.”
Nayak said making data about migrant workers publicly accessible on official government website, without compromising their privacy by revealing their identities, is important because, “Publicly available data has the potential to galvanise civil society efforts to work with the authorities to devise solutions to the problems faced by migrant workers and also enable people to demand accountability for governmental actions and omissions while dealing with this issue.”
While that data is still to be uploaded online, Nayak noted that “The CIC’s decision must be viewed as a timely push for the Labour and Employment Ministry in particular and the government in general in the right direction.”
Edited excerpts from the interview:
You filed an RTI application on 21 April in the Office of the Chief Labour Commissioner, which is under the union ministry of labour and employment, seeking data about migrant workers relating to their states, districts, genders and occupations. What was your purpose for seeking this data?
Ever since the lockdown began, I have been reading stories of distress, suffering, pain, hunger, deprivation and deaths of migrant workers. This issue has received much attention in the mass media, next only to the daily updates of COVID-19 spread figures. Clearly, this is a national issue even though governments were slow in recognising the enormity and depth of this problem.
Within a couple of days of the Chief Labour Commissioner issuing the 8th April ‘demi official’ letter to his Regional Heads to collect individualised data about stranded migrant workers, my Director Mr. Sanjoy Hazarika sent me a scanned copy of this document—which he probably received in a social media network. This circular required data about all migrant workers stranded in big and small towns and cities and rural areas to be collected within three days and submitted to the Chief Labour Commissioner.
By then, estimates of the size of this segment of the citizenry had been floating around—between 4-5 crores was the figure. Hundreds of them had started their long march back home—some in trucks and private buses, some in the bowels of water and milk tankers and concrete putty mixers, some on bicycles and most on foot.
Governments had not yet woken up to the magnitude of this problem to arrange transport for them. All action initially was to compel them to submit to the lockdown restrictions and forcibly isolate them in so-called “relief camps” in the name of preventing the spread of COVID-19 contagion. Concerned citizens and NGOs were stretching themselves to the limit to supply essentials like food, water, sanitary pads and medicines to stranded migrant workers.
Clearly, solutions to such a crisis situation can be devised only if there is reliable and adequate information.
After waiting for two weeks I decided to query the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office about the outcome of the 8th April circular as the crisis appeared to be only worsening day by day. I did not seek information for myself, instead I requested the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office to make data they collected about migrant workers publicly accessible on their official website. Publicly available data has the potential to galvanise civil society efforts to work with the authorities to devise solutions to the problems faced by migrant workers and also enable people to demand accountability for governmental actions and omissions while dealing with this issue.
The Central Information Commission has issued an advisory to the Chief Labour Commissioner on May 27 through an order to publish data online pertaining to migrant workers stranded across India within a week. This was issued in response to a complaint you filed with the Central Information Commission after the union government did not provide you the data in response to the RTI application. Please explain in brief how, when India is steadily opening up, will the government putting out this data help at this point and whom?
A few days before the Central Information Commission decided my case, the Central Government announced that it would create an MIS exclusively for migrant workers by collecting information in collaboration with the States and Union Territories. This is a welcome move. So the Central Information Commission’s advisory to the Chief Labour Commissioner is very timely, especially since the data collection exercise has already begun.
The Chief Labour Commissioner’s exercise is limited only to migrant workers who are isolated in government-run relief camps, stranded at the work-sites of their employers or clustered elsewhere such as in stadiums, schools or even along highways. This data enumeration exercise will not cover hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who decided to not stay put in their homes and are walking back to their states.
Of course, the datasets will not reflect reality beyond a few days because of the fluid nature of return migration. But making the data public is an important first step towards devising policy solutions for the millions of migrant workers who have not yet gone back home and are out of work. They have to be fed, clothed and treated for illnesses, including possible COVID-19 infection just like any other citizen in the country. All of this can be planned only if reliable data is collected. Placing it in the public domain will help private and social sector actors to work with the administration to ensure that they are treated with dignity and their deprivation is addressed.
The culture and mindset of secrecy has not been discarded despite 15 years of implementation of the RTI Act which was brought in to change the paradigm of governance—the very goals that the NDA espoused in 2014 and again in 2019.
3) In a recent interview, railways minister Piyush Goyal pinned the blame on state governments for the administration’s failure to provide transportation for migrant workers so that they could travel back home. Now, the “trains are running empty,” he said. The interview also puts the number of migrant workers who have been transported back to their home states to 54 lakh. What is your sense of the numbers about the proportion of stranded migrant workers who have managed to travel back and those who are still awaiting their turn? Further, who do you blame for failing to provide transportation to the migrant workers?
For every 1,500 - 2,000 people transported by each train, thousands more who had registered went back disappointed as they could not board the trains despite receiving messages from the authorities to arrive at the railway stations on a particular date.
There are reports of migrant workers visiting railway stations day after day only to go back in vain after facing verbal abuse and even a taste of the lathis from the police who were posted for managing crowds.
Demand for the journey back home far exceeded the supply of coaches and trains that the Indian Railways could muster. At last count, announced by the authorities a day or so before the CIC’s order came out, 91 lakh migrant workers were transported back to their home States on buses and trains. Figures shared publicly by the same authorities a few days before this announcement showed, about 60% of them returned by buses arranged by the State Governments. So blaming the states for not doing enough is like passing the buck. Governments at the central and the state level must learn to accept their responsibility for the mess that has been created and which continues to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, men and women and the children who accompanied them, instead of blaming one another.
The letter written by the Chief Labour Commissioner on April 8 to regional labour commissioners seeking data about stranded migrant workers within three days doesn’t convey the reason why such an exercise was being conducted. Do you think: a) this should have been explained? and b) the data should already have been with the chief labour commissioner’s office since India’s ratification of the Labour Statistics Convention of 1985 obliges it to maintain such data in an updated form?
What is being missed out in the public debate about migrant workers is the utter neglect in many States and UTs of the four-decade-old Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act. Had this law of 1979 vintage been implemented in letter and spirit, States and UTs would have had some contemporary data about large segments of the migrant workers population. This law requires data to be collected in the home state and the destination state of migrant workers so long as they are being hired in groups of five or more by contractors.
Of course this law itself needs major overhaul given the changed circumstances of the economy since its enactment—migration has only increased post-liberalisation and due to the heightened levels of indebtedness and rural distress occasioned by the ongoing agrarian crisis.
Data about migrant workers is collected only during the General Census conducted every 10 years. The detailed data tables regarding the gender, age, literacy levels, place of origin and destination collected in 2011 were released only in July 2019.
As you quite rightly mentioned, having ratified the 1985 ILO Convention in April 1992, India is under an international obligation to collect data about all categories of workers, including domestic workers. The objectives of data collection are clearly stated in Article 8 of the Convention - “to be representative of the country as a whole, for detailed analysis and serve as benchmark data.”
2011 Census figures have served well as benchmark data for many purposes. But it is utterly outdated to handle the migrant workers’ crisis. According to the data tables collected in 2011, there were 45.5 crore migrants (workers and non-workers) across the country who had migrated from their home State to others for a variety of reasons. Of these, 1.72 crores were said to have migrated for reasons of employment according to the literacy-related data tables published so far.
As recently as on 23rd March 2020—24 hours before the country-wide lockdown was announced—the Government informed the Lok Sabha that it does not collect data about migrant workers except during the Census conducted once in 10 years. The Minister of State for Labour and Employment estimated 10 crore migrant workers—that is a little less than 10% of India’s population of 138 crores as per 2020 estimates (Source: Worldometer).
In other words, the size of the migrant worker population had grown 10 times over the last nine years. According to experts like Prof. Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, even this is an underestimate. 14 crores might be a more realistic figure. Given these facts, should any reason be given at all by the CLC to collect data about stranded migrant workers?
The data collection exercise was long overdue and could not be postponed by another year to 2021 for the next Census to be held. Data about migrant workers required urgent collection and collation as the first step for devising policy prescriptions to handle the burgeoning crisis.
In her order last week, Information Commissioner Vanaja Sarna has made some strong observations about the way in which the Central Public Information Officer in the Labour ministry handled your RTI application. She said she was “pained to see such a callous and non-serious attitude of the CPIO while handling the RTI application”. Do you believe this comment captures how the central government and most of its public authorities have handled the right to information during the previous two months of lockdown?
In 2014, the NDA Government rode to power on the electoral plank of transparent, accountable and corruption-free governance. The Hon’ble Prime Minister has reiterated that commitment in various public fora. He has gone on record to advise ministries and departments to examine the nature and content of RTI applications to make an assessment of the lacuna in the administration to which they might point.
Unfortunately, despite this exhortation, such exercises have not even begun in right earnest in most public authorities, barring a few public sector enterprises which examine every information request they get and the response that goes out as an internal feedback mechanism.
The culture and mindset of secrecy has not been discarded despite 15 years of implementation of the RTI Act which was brought in to change the paradigm of governance—the very goals that the NDA espoused in 2014 and again in 2019. The bureaucracy has not delivered on this promise satisfactorily. It is quite evident that prior knowledge of numerous media reports highlighting the plight of migrant workers, and the directions issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and High Court have moved the Information Commissioner to pass such an advisory.
Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 lockdown, we seem to be sliding back into the age of information disclosure on a “need to know basis” as determined by the authorities rather than prioritising implementation of the “people’s right to know” principle which the RTI Act seeks to embed in governance.
This is one of the major elements of a functional democracy—governing as if every person mattered, so tell him and her what you are doing or plan to do based on official records, not propaganda material. The CIC’s decision must be viewed as a timely push for the Labour and Employment Ministry in particular and the Government in general in the right direction.
You also led a rapid survey done by the CHRI of how the information commissions were performing in various states during the lockdown period. Based on that exercise, and since then, how would you assess the manner in which various state governments have implemented the people’s right to information during this period?
Indeed, the lockdown witnessed the shutting down of all Information Commissions initially. Barring a couple of them, others remained inactive in phase 2 as well.
The CIC took the lead in resuming work during the second phase of the lockdown. The State Information Commissions were slow to emulate this example as the telephonic and website survey my colleague conducted has shown.
Because of the lockdown, people are not able to submit RTI applications seeking information except where online facilities have been established. Even these are too few, like those set up by the Central Government, Maharashtra and Delhi. The Punjab State Information Commission set up a helpline to act as a conduit to the government for people’s urgent information requests regarding life and liberty issues.
Activists with whom we are in touch in several States have complained about the near complete failure of the government machinery to implement the proactive information disclosure provisions in the RTI Act. They say they are unable to locate even the names and telephone numbers of senior officers of empowered groups set up by the State Governments to tackle the COVID-19 epidemic.
Reports from Odisha indicate, whistleblowers and RTI activists have been beaten up for raising their voice about corruption and mismanagement in the distribution of relief and rehabilitation particularly involving the public distribution system. This is not citizen-centric governance at all. Governments must work to supplement their tools of power with tools of citizen-service to reach out to the people during these times of extreme distress.
From a common citizen’s perspective, the RTI is often a long drawn out, even seemingly tedious, process of seeking information which takes weeks. What is the relevance of RTI to address citizens’ immediate concerns during the time of a global pandemic and lockdowns implemented by the centre and states in varying degrees?
In April 2020, the International Conference of Information Commissioners, which is a world-wide grouping of oversight bodies established under RTI laws in more than 120 countries, issued a public statement highlighting the importance of RTI during the pandemic. They called for clear and transparent communication from governments to the people and good record keeping.
India is not represented in the list of signatories to this statement, unfortunately, while the Information Commissions in Nepal and Punjab province in Pakistan added their voice to this demand.
The RTI Act emphasises proactive information disclosure over formal request-based responses even during normal times. The demand for voluntary information disclosure becomes more urgent during times of crisis.
RTI in India is a constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right. Lockdown does not suspend this right at all, unlike the freedoms of movement, assembly which have taken a battering. The RTI Act emphasises proactive information disclosure over formal request-based responses even during normal times. The demand for voluntary information disclosure becomes more urgent during times of crisis. COVID-19 poses a public health emergency of deep and long drawn proportions.
This is not the time for suspending channels of communication under the pretext of fighting the spread of a novel coronavirus. This is the time for devising novel solutions to information sharing with people in real time. As people are not able to file information requests in most places during the lockdown, there is a greater duty on governments to become more transparent about their actions in a voluntary manner.
Of course website-based disclosures are for people on the right side of the digital divide. For digital have-nots, this is the time for “democracy by telephone” where every citizen must be able to access the information by simply making phone calls to specially designated officers in public authorities. This is what strengthens public confidence in the ability of the government to tackle the crisis. Every public authority is required to make an assessment of the information needs of people and put in place mechanisms for proactive information disclosure rather than seek leniency in the statutory timelines for responding to RTI applications and first appeals.
Locations of hospitals designated for COVID treatment, supply and sale of food grains through fair price shops, contacts of officers who are empowered to address and redress complaints of domestic violence, helplines for migrant workers who wish to return home or stay put and other similar categories of information must be placed in the public domain through the wide variety of dissemination methods given in the RTI Act. Access to information and by logical extension, its facilitator, the RTI Act, are both more relevant than ever before.