IN THEIR presentations before the parliamentary Joint Select Committee examining the Personal Data Protection Bill, the Union Home Ministry as well as several of its agencies are learnt to have argued for why they needed exemption from the planned legislation.
Among those who appeared before the committee, that met on Monday for two-and-a-half hours, were Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla, heads of the National Investigation Agency and the Narcotics Control Bureau, Registrar of Census, and a representative of the National Crimes Record Bureau. The Law Secretary, Information Technology Secretary, and a member of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) also made presentations.
According to sources, Samajwadi Party MP Ram Gopal Yadav, who is a member of the committee, enquired what measures were included in the Bill to guard citizens against abuse of such powers by the government. What was the assurance that the room the committee sat in for the meeting was not tapped for example, he reportedly asked.
To Congress MP Manish Tewari’s query on whether the agencies were prepared to accept legislative or judicial oversight, the Home Secretary said they only wanted executive oversight over the expressed powers.
The UIDAI was meant to give a presentation comparing the Act governing it and the data Bill. However, it failed to table the required document and hence the committee did not take up its presentation, it is learnt.
Approved by the Cabinet in 2019, the Personal Data Protection Bill intends to regulate the collection, movement and processing of data that is personal, or which can help identify an individual. It also authorises the government to transfer certain types of personal data overseas and the government agencies powers to collect personal and sensitive data of citizens.
The committee’s discussion on Monday revolved around Article 35 of the Bill, which lets the Central government give exemption to any government agency from the legislation, allowing it to process citizens’ personal data “for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order,” or “ in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order”.
It says certain provisions can also be exempt “in the interests of prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of any offence or any other contravention of any law for the time being in force”, if it is necessary for legal rights, judicial function, and journalistic purpose.
An earlier draft of the Bill, prepared by the Justice Srikrishna committee in 2018, had provided exemptions to the government for collecting such data for purposes of security, criminal investigations and crime prevention. It had, however, stipulated that these exceptions be authorised by a separate law and data be collected only if it is “necessary for, and proportionate to” the government’s
The new Bill does not include any of these limitations.
The Joint Select Committee now considering the data Bill is headed by the BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi. It was set up bypassing a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology that was led by the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor.
Among those present at Monday’s meeting were S S Ahluwalia (BJP), Ritesh Pandey (BSP), Bhartruhari Mahtab (BJD), Rajeev Chandrasekhar (BJP), and Gaurav Gogoi (Congress).
Incidentally, attending a discussion with the think tank IDFC Institute Monday, Justice Srikrishna said the exceptions allowing for government surveillance make the new Bill “Orwellian” law. “Even today, people will say that it’s a good thing for crooks to be bumped off since he’s a bad man… Even an accused has human rights,” he said.
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