A controversy had erupted on Wednesday after there were reports that National Informatics Centre (NIC), which designs government websites, had allegedly said that it had no information about the development of the Aarogya Setu app inviting sharp criticism from the Central Information Commission. But now it has revealed that all the information sought in the RTI query were already in the public domain, but for reason, officials had said they don’t have the information. The government is taking action against the erring officials in this regard.
Reportedly, the Chief Information Commission had pulled up the NIC, which comes under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) and had also issued a show-cause notice to NIC, MEITY and National E-Governance Division (NeGD), asking them why penalty should not be imposed on them for prima facie obstruction of information and providing an evasive reply on an RTI application related to Aarogya Setu App.
The CIC’s directions to the concerned authorities came as a response to a complaint filed by one Saurav Das, stating that the NIC, MeitY and NeGD had failed to provide information related to the process of creation of the Aarogya Setu app. The complainant had said that when he had filed an RTI with the NIC, he got a response saying that it does not have any information, which was surprising as NIC is the developer of the app.
MEITY clarifies on ownership of Aarogya Setu app
Amidst the controversy, the Ministry issued a clarification saying that the Aarogya Setu app was developed in the most transparent manner with public-private collaboration in record time to fight the coronavirus. It said that the Aarogya Setu app is a product of Government of India built in collaboration with the best of the minds of industry and academia.
Taking to Twitter, the government gave a detailed clarification stating that the names of all those associated with the development of the App and management of the App ecosystem at various stages were shared when the code was released in Public Domain and it was also shared widely in media.
Clarification issued on Aarogya Setu App. Aarogya Setu App is a product of Government of India built in collaboration with the best of the minds of Industry & Academia. Worlds largest contact tracing App, appreciated by WHO also. #SetuMeraBodyguard #IndiaFightsCorona pic.twitter.com/mbhQ4pTuZw— Aarogya Setu (@SetuAarogya) October 28, 2020
“The Aarogya Setu app was developed in a record time of around 21 days, to respond to the exigencies of the Pandemic with Lockdown restrictions only for the objective of building a Made in India Contact Tracing App with the best of Indian minds from Industry, Academia and Government, working round the clock to build a robust, scalable and secure app,” said the government.
Even as the government issued clarifications on the issue, opposition parties and its media ecosystem did not miss the opportunity to politicise the issue as they attacked the Modi government over its response to RTI query concerning the Aarogya Setu app. They alleged that the Modi government had no idea about who owned or managed the Aarogya Setu app and accused the government of breaching privacy and data security.
MEITY made information public about Aarogya Setu in April
Contrary to the observations made by RTI activist on Aarogya Setu, the information pertaining to the Aarogya Setu app, developed by NIC, in collaboration with other private players, was already in the public domain since April this year.
A press note released by Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), dated April 8, 2020, had put out information relating to the organisational chart for the functioning of Aarogya Setu app and its platform ecosystem. The letter released by MEITY had disclosed the information regarding the organisational setup and the individual responsibilities of concerned persons in tasks relating to the development, promotion and functioning of Aarogya Setu app and its platform ecosystem.
In its response in April, the Ministry had put out names of the individuals associated with the development and the management of the Aarogya Setu app.
The letter names – Neeta Verma, DG NIC, RS Mani, DDG NIC, Lalitesh Katragadda – Chief Volunteer and Product Head, Amab Kumar – PD NITI Aayog, Vikalp Sahni and Rahul Goyal – Volunteers, Prof V Kamakoti – IIT Madras, as the members of the organisational structure responsible for the Aarogya Setu app.
These above-mentioned individuals, according to MEITY, are responsible for the architecture, key platform decisions and direction, security, privacy and legal areas of the Aarogya Setu app. The Ministry in its release had put out the complete organisational structure of the Aarogya Setu app just days after its initial release.
Later, on April 28, 2020, the MEITY had also included another member – Abhishek Singh, CEO of MyGov and NeGD, who was responsible for the content, promotion and enhancing the usage of the of Aarogya Setu app.
In fact, all the information pertaining to the ownership, management and also critical issues concerning privacy and data security related to Aarogya Setu was already in the public domain contrary to the claim made by RTI activist that NIC and MEITY were clueless about the creation of the application.
Fault in RTI reply
From the above facts it is clearly seen that this app was developed and managed by Government of India with voluntary support from some Indian tech companies, and the details of people involved in the project were made public by the ministry time to time. But for some reason, the same was not furnished as a reply to the RTI query, which instead said that the NIC and Ministry do not have any information on the same. The officials also sent the query to NeGD, which replied after two months that it is not associated with the Aarogya Setu Project. But actually, the CEO of NeGD was made part of the team.
Therefore, the RTI response was faulty, which created unnecessary confusion among the public. According to the sources in the ministry, not disclosing these facts in the reply to the RTI query was a lapse on part of the junior officers who were handling this. The source also told us that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology is going to take action against these incompetent officers for such a lapse which has caused a major embarrassment for the government. Instead of trying to locate the information, the officials took the easy way out to say that they don’t have the information, not thinking about the consequences.