The Central Information Commission has directed the Modi government to respond within 10 days to a Right to Information request seeking details of a committee that oversaw the supply of oxygen during the coronavirus pandemic, The Hindu reported on Sunday.

During the second wave of the pandemic in April, when India was struggling with shortages of medical supplies, journalist Saurav Das had filed an RTI request seeking information about a nine-member Empowered Committee responsible for dealing with oxygen.

The committee was set up in 2020 under the Ministry of Commerce’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal trade. Initially, it was responsible for the supply of personal protective equipment, RT-PCR test kits, masks and gloves. However, it later took on the task of managing oxygen supply.

Das had sought details about the dates, agenda and minutes of the committee’s meetings as well as the presentations made before it, according to The Hindu.

The Central public information officer responded to the journalist on June 11 but refused to divulge any information. He cited sections of the RTI Act that allow the government to withhold information prejudicial to the country’s “security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests”, The Telegraph reported.

During a hearing related to the matter on Saturday, the official said the proposals and discussions of the Empowered Group consisted of “highly sensitive information regarding technologies, strategies and processes to be adopted, regarding the commercial and costing aspects of different industries and commodities”, The Hindu reported.

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The official claimed that disclosing information related to the Empowered Group would “irreparably harm the competitive position of government and private entities”.

“It [the committee] must be protected from disclosure given the larger intent to protect such information from being misused or being adversely used against the interest of the state,” the official added, according to The Hindu.

The Central Information Commission, the top appellate body under the Right to Information Act, rejected the officer’s arguments saying that the denial of details in a blanket manner was not justified. The commission added that the exemptions cited by the Central public information officer appeared to be “an afterthought that seemed far-fetched”, according to The Telegraph.

The Central Information Commission directed the public information officer to offer a point-wise response to the RTI query within 10 days. The commission also said that the denial of any information must be justified properly, according to The Hindu.

India’s oxygen crisis

India struggled with a grave oxygen crisis in the second wave of the pandemic in April-May. The shortages of the life-saving gas as well as medicines and hospital beds forced families and friends of patients to plead for help on social media.

Hospitals sent out SOS messages as their oxygen stocks ran dangerously low. Several reports emerged of patients dying because of oxygen shortages.

But on July 20, the Centre told the Parliament that states did not specifically report any deaths due to oxygen shortages. Opposition leaders and health experts derided the Centre for making such a claim, saying that the response was rather bureaucratic and reflected its denial mode.

A week after that, the Centre asked the states and Union territories to share data on deaths due to the shortage of oxygen. The government is likely present the data in the Parliament before the Monsoon Session ends on August 13.