INDIA: Reluctance to part with info dogs RTI cases

Activist is convinced that former minister evaded jail time by faking heart problems

Times of India
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

By Viju B

Mumbai --- The Right to Information Act (RTI) continues to face stiff opposition from the powers-that-be. Recently, state health department officials refused to provide information about former minister Surupsinh Naik's medical report. Naik allegedly exploited the air-conditioned comforts of J J Hospital's private ward following his arrest in May 2006.

Naik was convicted for contempt of court by the supreme court after he illegally sanctioned six saw mills in a restricted forest area. He was sentenced to one month prison term on May 12, but instead of serving time at Thane central jail, he was shifted to a deluxe room at the J J Hospital after he complained of heart problems. The minister stayed at the hospital for another 21 days till he was shifted back to jail on June 6.

RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi filed a query on May 26, asking for detailed copies of medical and ECG reports of the minister during his course of stay at J J Hospital. "But the public information officer of the hospital refused to divulge any information," Gandhi said. He then went for a first appeal on June 2006. But the first appellate authority rejected his query on the grounds that it was personal information.

"The appellate authority slyly invoked Clause 8(1) J, which states information cannot be revealed if it does not hold any public interest," said Gandhi.

This, according to him, was unfair as Naik's case had evoked enormous public interest. "Here was a person who was convicted for a crime and he was enjoying the comforts of five star care. He was not only denying space for the more needy, but was also using the extraneous powers to influence the bureaucracy for his selfish needs," said Gandhi.

After the appellate authority rejected his first appeal, Gandhi filed a second appeal with the state information commission. "In the course of the hearing, senior officials of J J Hospital tried to withhold information by stating it went against medical ethics. How can a convict who misutilised the facilities of a public care hospital become private information?" asked Gandhi. The state information commission has now withheld the order till date. "I strongly feel there is external pressure that is preventing the state commission from passing an order," added Gandhi.

Earlier, an RTI query that sought details about the chief minister's relief fund was also rejected by the state authorities on the grounds that the relief fund was a private trust. Gandhi had gone on for a second appeal with the state information commission, which withheld the order till date.

Earlier, state information commissioner Suresh Joshi had told TOI that a similar RTI query has been filed with the central information commission, seeking details about the PM's fund. "I will be taking the CIC's advice in this regard," he said.

Published: Wednesday, October 25, 2006