Right to withhold

The Jamnagar case draws attention to the need for a comprehensive privacy law.

Written by The Indian Express | Published: August 27, 2013 4:14 am

The Jamnagar case draws attention to the need for a comprehensive privacy law.

In response to a PIL over a bizarre incident in a government hospital in Jamnagar,where an HIV-positive patient was labelled as such and paraded,the Gujarat high court last week directed that the privacy of HIV patients must be respected and discrimination against them must be “eliminated completely” in government health facilities. The plaintiff had argued that in India,disclosure often has life-altering consequences,including the loss of home and livelihood,abandonment,ostracism and even violence. The bench agreed that the lack of privacy would deter infected people from seeking medical aid,compromising the campaign to contain the disease.

The court would not have been burdened with this case if Parliament had had the time and inclination to debate the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Bill,2012,which explicitly covers privacy issues. In chapter four,which concerns disclosure,persons to whom HIV status is disclosed are barred from passing on the information,except in accordance with provisions of the law. Besides,they are barred from passing on the information in a manner that allows the person in question to be identified. Again,exceptions are spelled out,such as spouses who may be in danger of infection. Data protection clauses and prohibitions on publication,covering the media,are also included. And jail terms are prescribed for victimising AIDS patients like the hospital staff in Jamnagar did.

But India,which has a national ID scheme in progress and may become a source of big data,is also in need of a comprehensive law centred on privacy,rather than privacy clauses scattered across legislations focused on various issues in which breach of privacy may have serious consequences. In addition to such clauses,there are the provisions of the Information Technology Amendment Act of 2008 and the IT Rules of 2011 that prescribe compensation for wrongful loss or wrongful gain arising from misuse of digital data. However,no unified law on privacy has emerged. Now that the Jamnagar case has drawn judicial attention,perhaps Parliament will realise that it has been asleep at the wheel.

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