The Patna High Court on Saturday once again pulled up Bihar’s Nitish Kumar government for what it called an “opaque system” of maintaining birth and death records. It categorically stated that, for whatever reasons, the state’s reluctance to publish the number of fatalities during the Covid pandemic period was uncalled for and not protected by law.
The High Court ordered that the state’s digital portal, which ought to be displaying relevant data but has not since 2018, be updated. It also said that elected representatives must also disclose such data within 24 hours.
Bihar has recently come under the scanner for considerably undercounting the number of deaths related to COVID-19.
An NDTV report had showed that close to 75,000 people died in the state of unexplained causes in the first five months of 2021, coinciding with the deadly second wave. This is almost 10 times the state’s official pandemic death figure — 7,717.
Quoting a 1975 Supreme Court order, the High Court on Saturday said: “To cover with a veil of secrecy, the common routine business, is not in the interest of the public. Such secrecy can seldom be legitimately desired.”
“As simple as it can be, the issue is as to whether more than ten crore people of the state of Bihar have a right to know, on a digital platform, the number of deaths that occurred in Bihar during the time of COVID-19.”
The court reminded the government that the right to information is a facet of Article 21 of the Constitution. Therefore, it said, the government of Bihar is under an obligation to the residents of the state to provide information on the digital portal the number of deaths that have occurred during the pandemic.
The court said it has found the government’s digital portal opaque and directed authorities to take steps to “integrate ease of access” in consonance with the larger aims of Digital India.
“The annual reports that are to uploaded on the digital portal have not been since 2018. Therefore, it is directed that the same be carried out within the next two months,” the court said.
“Elected representatives…are duty-bound to disclose the number of deaths that occurred in their constituencies within 24 hours.”