Is it that the Union Government feels answerable only to Members of Parliament and not to ‘We, The People’ at large?
In a Right to Information (RTI) application filed on 13 June, transparency activist Anjali Bharadwaj asked the Ministry of Railways to provide information on the number of people who died on Shramik Special trains and the cause of their death. Shramik trains were started by the Union government on 1 May to transport migrant workers during the COVID-19 lockdown.
In the RTI reply dated 7 July, the Ministry refused to share any information on the grounds that the data is available with the state police and that she should file RTIs with them. The RTI reply said:
"“Policing on Railways being State subject. Therefore registration of cases of unnatural deaths and their investigation is their responsibility which they discharge through Government Railway Police/Local Police.” "
On the other hand, in reply to similar questions asked by the Congress MP Uttam Kumar Reddy in the Lok Sabha, the Ministry of Railways said, “based on the data provided by the State Police, 97 persons were reported to have passed away till 9 September 2020 while travelling on board Shramik Special Trains”.
The Ministry further added in its reply:
"“State Police sent dead bodies for postmortem in 87 cases. 51 postmortem reports have been received from respective State Police so far, in which reasons for deaths have been shown as cardiac arrest/ heart disease/brain haemorrhage/pre-existing chronic disease/chronic lung disease/chronic liver disease etc.” "
The question here is: why did the Ministry of Railways not share the information under RTI instead of telling the applicant to seek information from the concerned state police?
In the RTI query, Bharadwaj sought answers to other questions like “name of deceased, name and number of Shramik train on which death occurred, date of death” but these were not answered.
" It is inexplicable why the government is refusing to provide information under the transparency law - especially since it is clear from the response to a Parliamentary question that the ministry has relevant records. Clearly the BJP government does not want to be answerable to people and is violating citizens’ fundamental democratic right to know. " - Anjali Bharadwaj, Transparency Activist
On 30 May 2020, media reports mentioned deaths of 80 migrant workers on the Shramik train. In response to these reports, the Railway Board Chairman VK Yadav admitted to media saying “some deaths occurred and we are compiling the figures…we will issue the figures in a few days”.
A few weeks later, Yadav once again informed the media that families of several migrant workers who died on board Shramik Special train can seek compensation through the railways claim tribunal.
"“All these cases are basically referred to the railway claim tribunal and on a case to case basis, these claims and compensations are decided and there is a very well laid out procedure for that.” " - VK Yadav, Railway Board Chairman
Till now, all we know is that 97 people died on board Shramik Special Train but we don’t know who these people are and how their families are surviving.
Since the details of the deceased are not available in the public domain, one cannot track whether their families were compensated for the tragic death of their loved ones. Some of them could well have been the sole breadwinners in their respective families.
Let’s not forget that one RTI reply led to another RTI application with further questions based on previous RTI answers. Hence if RTI replies are refused, it will hit a roadblock. By refusing an RTI reply, the government is taking away from its citizens, the right to know.
. Read more on India by The Quint.BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Dies of COVID-19; 97,894 New Cases in IndiaShramik Train Deaths: Govt Stalled RTI Despite Having Details . Read more on India by The Quint.