Why are eminent personalities questioning public consultation on 'Data Bill'?

Several information commissioners on December 13 also expressed their concern on how the proposed Bill is seeking to clip the wings of the RTI Act.

By M Sridhar  Published on  28 Dec 2022 5:05 AM GMT
Why are eminent personalities questioning public consultation on  Data Bill?

Hyderabad: Supreme Court Judge Justice A P Shah, Justice K Chandru, former judge, Madras High Court, social activist Medha Patkar, veteran journalist P Sainath, Wajahat Habibullah (former Chief Information Commission, CIC), Shailesh Gandhi, Sridhar Acharyulu (former two Central Information Commissioners), Aruna Roy, along with 70 eminent personalities questioned the way Centre's is conducting the consultation on Data Protection Bill. 2022.

Several information commissioners on December 13 also expressed their concern on how the proposed Bill is seeking to clip the wings of the RTI Act.

Section (i) (j) of the Act – the most commonly misused exemption – says that "information which relates to personal information, the disclosure of which has not related to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual, unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information – provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person."

The proposed Bill aims to amend this section of the Act.

They wrote: We write to you to express our concern regarding the proposed Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDPB), 2022, and the undemocratic manner in which public consultation on the bill has been invited, in violation of procedural requirements as per the Pre- Legislative Consultative Policy (PLCP), 2014.

On 18th November 2022, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) published the draft DPDPB, 20,22, and explanatory note3 on their website along with a notice4inviting feedback on the bill from the public within 30 days. While the PLCy stipulates that any Department/ Ministry must take proactive steps necessary to ensure that the draft legislation has wide reach and publicity – the draft DPDPB, 2022 has only been made available in the English language on the MeitY website.

To ensure a transparent and robust consultative process as envisaged by the PLCP, the 2014 – period for the consultation must be extended and MeitY ought to release the draft Bill in multiple Indian languages, and facilitate physical platforms other than their website to provide wider publicity and engagement with the consultative process.

The process to submit comments is only through the MyGov website which is convoluted and difficult to navigate – allowing only submissions and feedback that are made chapter-wise. Additionally, the notice issued by MeitY further states that the submissions invited from the public will not be disclosed in the public domain and 'held in a fiduciary capacity, to enable persons submitting feedback to provide the same freely'. The non-disclosure of comments received from the public and the status of their consideration by the Government goes against the basic tenets of a public consultation process.

The Digital Personal Data Protection Bill is legislation that will impact all citizens of India, and any consultative process must remain transparent, open, inclusive, and in line with the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy, 2014.

The Data Protection Board is the principal authority that has been set up to determine non-compliance with the provisions of the Act and for adjudicating compliance and redressing grievances. Section 19 of the DPDPB, 2022 confers discretionary powers to the Central Government which is responsible for determining the selection and compositions, terms of conditions, and removal of the Chairperson of the Data Protection Board. The lack of independence of the Data Protection Board is extremely worrying and it is imperative that such a board function without the interference of the Central Government to enable the protection of the interest of citizens, specifically qua violations of the DPDPB carried out by the Central Government. Additionally, the draft Bill stipulates that the functions of this Board will be digital in design, making the complaints and redress process exclusionary.

The draft Bill which seeks to create a legal framework for the governing of personal digital data in India contains several problematic formulations within it that fail to protect the right to privacy of individuals and seriously undermine transparency and accountability through the proposed amendments to Section 8 (i) (j) of the Right to Information in Section 30 of the draft Bill. Section 8(i) (j) of the RTI law contains within it privacy protections which have been settled positions of law while the proposed amendments render both the right to privacy and the RTI ineffective. Through this amendment, all personal information can be denied, even if disclosure of that information is relevant to the larger part of a public activity or in the public interest as provided for in Section 8 of the RTI Act. It unjustifiably removes the proviso to Section 8 that equates the citizens' right to not be unjustifiably denied information with that of the elected representative and the legislature This gives legal sanction for government entities, government functionaries, and political executives to remain opaque in their functioning. This will also result in the regression of legal victories consolidated thus far that has ensured the declaration of information in the public domain in the public interest of entities enjoying power and privilege.

The proposed Bill has the potential to place restrictions on public disclosures mandated by various welfare laws and schemes like the National Food Security, 2013, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2055, and the National Social Assistance Programme that are vital to maintaining transparency and accountability. These mandates of information disclosure have been hard-won gains through decades of struggle and advocacy. However, disregarding this hard-won right and principle, the non-obstante clause Section 29 (2) of the DPDPB, 2022 reads "In the event of any conflict between a provision of this Act and a provision of any other law for the time being in force, the provision of this Act shall prevail to the extent of such conflict."

The letter further says, "The process to submit comments is only through the MyGov website which is convoluted and difficult to navigate – allowing only submissions and feedback that are made chapter-wise. Additionally, the notice issued by MeitY further states that the submissions invited from the public will not be disclosed in the public domain and 'held in a fiduciary capacity, to enable persons submitting feedback to provide the same freely'."

"The non-disclosure of comments received from the public and the status of its consideration by the government goes against the basic tenets of a public consultation process," it adds.

"The Digital Personal Data Protection Bill is a legislation that will impact all citizens of India, and any consultative process must remain transparent, open and inclusive and in line with the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy, 2014," the letter reads. In the letter, they have also objected to the proposed amendments to Section 8 (i) (j) of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

They demand:

1. Transparent and Inclusive Public Consultation Process:

1.1 The DPDPB has only been released on the MyGov website in English with the deadline for submissions being 17th December 2022. The time for the submission of feedback must be extended. The draft Bill must be released in multiple Indian languages and widely publicized through electronic and print media for wider engagement in the consultation process as it impacts the fundamental rights of all citizens. In a similar case regarding the consultation process of the draft EIA notifications 2020, the Delhi High Court directed the MoEF&CC to publish the draft for public consultation in all languages mentioned in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, and take proactive steps for its dissemination.

1.2 As per the notice released by MeitY, the summary of feedback/submissions will not be made available in the public domain. The summary of feedback/comments received from the public/other stakeholders must be made available on the Ministry's website in line with the PCLP, 2014 to facilitate and support a robust, transparent, and democratic consultative process.

1.3 MeitY is currently accepting only chapter-wise feedback on the online portal. The process for submission of feedback must be made easy and accessible to all citizens, including provisions for offline submission.

1.4 The DPDPB, 2022 is likely to have ramifications for many welfare legislations and policies. As per the procedure laid down in PCLP, 2014, the Ministry should organize open consultations with all stakeholders, including people's movements and civil society organizations, and campaigns working on these issues.

2. Objection to proposed amendments to the RTI Act: No amendments should be made to Section 8 (i) (j) of the RTI Act. The RTI law is critical legislation that empowers ordinary citizens to demand information and maintain accountability and transparency in government functions. Any attempt to amend this critical section will lead to the dismantling of the RTI structure and a reversal of the transparency and accountability that it introduced in governance. The right to information and the right to privacy of all Indian citizens must be protected.

We seek your support and appeal to you and your party to raise these concerns in the ongoing winter session of parliament and outside of parliament. The draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022 poses a serious challenge to the processes of democratic engagement and threatens the very foundations of the transparency and accountability regime in the country.

Others who have questioned the move include Prof M Sridhar Acharyulu, Dean, School of Law, Mahindra University, former Central Information Commissioner, and other citizens criticized the Bill, like Abha Bhaiya, Alok Perti, IAS (Retd.), Amitabha Pande, IAS (Retd.), Annie Raja, Arundathi Duru, Ashish Ranjan, Aurobindo Behera, IAS (Retd.), Beena Pallical, Bezwada Wilson, Chandrashekar Balakrishnan, IAS (Retd.), Deb Mukharji, IFS (Retd.), Dinesh Abrol, Dunu Roy, F.T.R. Colaso, IPS (Retd.), G.K. Pillai, IAS (Retd.), Gauhar Raza, Geetha Thoopal, IRAS (Retd.), Gopalan Balagopal, IAS (Retd.), Gurjit Singh Cheema, IAS (Retd.), H.S. Gujral, IFoS (Retd.), Hindal Tyabji, IAS (Retd.), Jagdeep Chhokar, Jayant Prasad, IFS (Retd.), Jean Dreze, Kathyayini Chamaraj, Kavita Srivastava, M.G. Devasahayam, IAS (Retd.), Madhu Bhaduri, IFS (Retd.), Mallika Sarabai, Martin Macwan, Maxwell Pereira, IPS (Retd.), Medha Patkar, (Narmada BachaoAndola), Meena Gupta, IAS (Retd.), Meera Sangamitra, MG Devasahayam, N.C. Saxena, IAS (Retd.), N.K. Raghupathy, IAS (Retd.), Navrekha Sharma, IFS (Retd.), Nikhil Dey, P. Joy Oommen, IAS (Retd.), P.R. Dasgupta, IAS (Retd.), P.S.S. Thomas, IAS (Retd.), P Sainath, Pamela Philipose, Pankti Jog, Paul Diwakar, Pradeep K. Deb, IAS (Retd.), Pradip Pradhan, Prashant Bhushan, R. Chandramohan, IAS (Retd.), Rajmohan Gandhi, Ravi Vira Gupta, IAS (Retd.), Sandeep Pandey, Shabnam Hashmi, Shekhar Singh, Siraj Hussain, IAS (Retd.), Subodh Lal, IPS (Resigned), Sundar Burra, IAS (Retd.), Suresh K. Goel, IFS (Retd.), Surjit K. Das, IAS (Retd.), TM Krishna, V.P. Raja, IAS (Retd.), Vipul Mudgal and, Vrinda Grover.

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