Feedback deadline for National Digital Health Mission policy extended, yet issues persist
Following disability rights advocate Dr Satendra Singh’s petition in the Delhi High Court, the deadline for submission of feedback regarding the National Digital Health Mission’s Health Data Management Policy has been extended by the Government of India. Yet many other issues with the consultation process persist, a key one being the violation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016.
21 September 2020 is the new deadline for the public to send their feedback regarding the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM)’s Health Data Management Policy. The extension of the deadline by 11 days follows the petition filed by disability rights advocate Dr Satendra Singh in the Delhi High Court over the undue haste shown in bringing about a policy that has massive implications for every Indian.
Under the NDHM, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 15 August 2020, a nationwide digital health ecosystem will be set up which will be a database of all health-related information of a person. This includes medical tests, prescriptions, diagnosis, treatments and all health records.
The short deadline aside, the petition raised concerns surrounding the consultation process like the exclusion of people with disabilities, non-English speakers and people without access to the Internet.
After the hearing, the National Health Authority has responded but only partly. Apart from the deadline extension, people can send feedback through offline modes such as post or courier as well. There are some indications that measures will be taken to make the consultation process accessible for persons with disabilities in accordance with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016.
Key policies violated
However, several statutory obligations and policy commitments have still not been complied with. These are:
- Violation of Official Languages Act, 1963 – The Draft Policy is only available in English, and translated versions are not available for any of the 22 languages recognised under the Constitution. The petition says that this must be translated to Hindi since there is a statutory obligation under Section 4(i) of the Official Languages Act, 1963 to publish all resolutions, general orders, rules, notifications, administrative or other reports or press communiques issued by the Central Government in both English and Hindi.
- Inconsistency with Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy, 2014 – The Draft Policy has been published on the official NDHM website but there is a need to give it wide publicity through print and electronic media to reach people who lack Internet access. While the government has allowed citizens to submit feedback via post and courier to account for the Digital Divide, there is a need to proactively disseminate information about the consultation through traditional media as well.
Violation of RPWD Act 2016 – Section 46 of the Act mandates that all government and private websites make information and communication technology accessible to persons with disabilities in the manner required under Section 42 of the RPWD Act and Rule 15(c) of RPWD Rules. This has to be done within two years. Since the Rules were notified on 15 June 2017, the deadline ended last year.
Yet in August 2020, the National Health Authority introduced an inaccessible measure in the online form for the consultation for the Draft Policy on its website. The online form requires the user to fill an image CAPTCHA which is inaccessible for visually impaired persons. An alternative option of making submissions by email has not been provided either. While submissions can be sent via post or courier, this is significantly more cumbersome and cannot be the only alternative available to persons with visual impairments who have a statutorily guaranteed right to access government websites on an equal basis. The use of image CAPTCHA in the absence of any accessible alternatives also violates Clause 6.6.3 of the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites issued under Rule 15(c) of the RPWD Rules.
The representation makes the following five demands:
- Modify or remove the image CAPTCHA present in the online form for submission for feedback using output modes for different types of sensory perception to accommodate different disabilities (visual impairment as well as deaf-blindness).
- Translate and publish the Draft Health Data Management Policy in Hindi at the very least, and in other languages recognised.
- Widely publicise the consultation through print and electronic media.
- Re-calculate 30 days for submission of feedback from the date of implementing the above mentioned changes and extend the deadline for the consultation.
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