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Jun 20, 2021

Patna HC Pulls Up Bihar Govt for Not Disclosing COVID Deaths on Digital Platforms

The court ordered the Bihar government to disclose information accurately, so that the third wave of COVID-19 can be prevented in the state. 
Patna high court. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: The Patna high government took exception to the Bihar government’s “reluctance” to upload accurate and updated information on digital platforms on the number of COVID-19 deaths in the state, LiveLaw has reported.

While pointing out that the state government is under an obligation to the residents of Bihar state to provide information on deaths, especially during the pandemic, a division bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar issued an order to update the digital portal maintained by the Bihar government (births and deaths and the state) immediately.

The court said that the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969 (Act No. 18 of 1969) of Bihar and the Right to Information Act, 2005 provide a right to an individual to access accurate information, and therefore, digital portals should be made accessible to the general public with regular and timely updates.

While reminding the Bihar government that the right to information is part of Article 21 (right to life) of the Indian constitution, the court pointedly asked if the 10 core people of Bihar do not have a right to know the number of deaths that occurred during the pandemic. It also queried if the Bihar government does not have a duty to “disclose either voluntarily or as mandated by law” the number of COVID-19 deaths in the state.

“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,” LiveLaw quoted judges as saying.

Also read: Bihar’s Official COVID Death Toll Is Far Lower Than What Crematoriums Are Reporting

Earlier, on June 12, the advocate general, representing the state government, had placed the blame on public representatives by stating that they were not being responsible for uploading the relevant information on digital portals, while also contending that the state government was not mandated under any law to disclose information of the number of deaths on the digital portal.

To this, the court pointing to the Bihar Registration of Births and Deaths Rules, 1999 said that the particular piece of law clearly noted that the government is under an obligation to provide information to the public, and hence the government’s view of not disclosing the information is “legally unsustainable”. It also specifically stressed that RTI Act has placed the onus on authorities to suo motu provide and disseminate information unless it is protected by law.

The court further went on to state that it was empowered under Entry 30, List III, Seventh Schedule of the constitution to come out with legislation or delegate the work to authorities concerned if the state government, hypothetically speaking, believed that there are no rules that compel it to provide information to the public.

“Also, in maintaining the correct statistics so that we as a nation can be prepared for the Third Wave of COVID Pandemic,” the court added.

The court ordered elected representatives to upload information regarding deaths in their constituencies on the digital portal within 24 hours. It also instructed officials concerned to protect the identity of individuals while uploading information keeping with the spirit of the right to privacy.

The Wire has reported that Bihar is underreporting COVID-19 deaths based on the data gathered from crematoriums and municipal corporations.

The data released by the Bihar health department from April 1 to May 20 2,663 people had died due to  COVID-19 in the state. However, in the same period, five crematoriums in Patna and one each in Bhagalpur and Muzaffarpur recorded 3,940 deaths due to COVID-19 – 1,277 deaths more than the official figure.

These figures don’t include most deaths which occurred in villages, because relatives largely cremated bodies in the villages itself.

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