New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government on Wednesday proposed to send the controversial Personal Data Protection (PDP) bill to a joint select committee of both Houses of Parliament, instead of following the traditional route which would have seen it being examined by the departmental standing committee headed by Shashi Tharoor of the Congress party.
As Opposition parties such as the Congress and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) attacked the government in the Lok Sabha for a growing “snooping industry” under its watch and alleged that the bill violated the Constitution, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad refuted the charge and said a joint parliamentary panel could examine it in a detailed manner.
The government will move a proposal to send the bill to the proposed committee on Thursday, Prasad said.
This, however, infuriated the Opposition, which had called for the bill to be sent to the parliamentary standing committee on information technology (IT) headed by Tharoor.
The Tharoor-led panel has been active recently, especially with regards to the WhatsApp snooping case, which it took up despite reservations expressed by BJP members on the committee.
Opposition parties walked out in protest as the House, where the ruling BJP-led NDA has a massive majority, allowed the minister to introduce the bill.
According to a Lok Sabha memo, the joint select committee will contain 20 members of the Lok Sabha (shown below), but not include Tharoor.
1. Meenakshi Lekhi – Bhartiya Janata Party
2. P.P. Chaudhary – Bhartiya Janata Party
3. S. S. Ahluwalia – Bharatiya Janata Party
4. Tejasvi Surya – Bharatiya Janata Party
5. Ajay Bhatt – Bharatiya Janata Party
6. Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore – Bharatiya Janata Party
7. Sanjay Jaiswal – Bharatiya Janata Party
8. Kiritbhai Solanki – Bharatiya Janata Party
9. Arvind Dharmapuri – Bharatiya Janata Party
10. Dr. Heena Gavit – Bharatiya Janata Party
11. Uday Pratap Singh – Bharatiya Janata Party
12. Rajiv Ranjan Singh – Janata Dal (United)
13. Gaurav Gogoi – Congress
14. S. Jothi Mani – Congress
15. Prof. Saugata Roy – Trinamool Congress
16. Kanimozhi – DMK
17. P.V. Midhun Reddy – YSR Congress
18. Dr.Shrikant Eknath Shinde – Shiv Sena
19. Bhartruhari Mahtab – Biju Janata Dal
20. Ritesh Pandey – Bahujan Samaj Party
The committee will also have 10 members from the Rajya Sabha, which will be recommended by the Rajya Sabha itself.
Before the introduction of the bill in the Lok Sabha, Opposition members such as Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of the Congress and Saugata Roy and Mohua Moitra of the TMC spoke against the bill, demanding that it be examined by the standing committee concerned.
Chowdhury said a “snooping industry” had grown and Prasad’s ministry was “riddled with suspicions” about its conduct.
Roy said people’s privacy was breached, referring to the row over the use of Israeli software Pegasus to spy on the WhatsApp communication of some people. There was no necessity for the bill which, he said, would add one more layer of bureaucracy when the existing laws could deal with the matter.
They also cited a Supreme Court judgment that said privacy was a fundamental right to question the bill.
Prasad then tried to defend the bill, asserting that it had the apex court’s mandate as the Supreme Court had underlined the need for a data protection law. The bill is aimed at safeguarding people’s rights and privacy, he said.
Privacy was a fundamental right but terrorists or the corrupt enjoyed no such right, Prasad said, citing the court’s order.
The proposed law was prepared on the recommendations of the Justice Srikrishna Committee which, he said, had engaged in the “widest consultation”.
The minister said the proposed law sought to divide people’s data into three categories.
The information falling in the critical category would not be allowed to be taken out of the country and the one falling in the sensitive country could go out only with the user’s consent, he added.
The proposed joint select committee will be exclusively dedicated to examining the bill in a “most detailed manner”, Prasad said, adding that the government wanted the draft law to be ready by the budget session of Parliament, which starts by January-end.
When Tharoor rose to protest against the move, Prasad retorted, saying as the chairperson of the standing committee on information technology, he could not advocate his own cause.
The joint panel would have the sole agenda of going through the bill as the parliamentary standing committee had other bills to scrutinise, Prasad said.
The proposed law seeks bars on storing and processing of personal data by entities without the explicit consent of an individual.
It, however, provides for exemptions for “reasonable purposes” such as “prevention and detection of any unlawful activity including fraud, whistle-blowing, merger and acquisitions, network and information security, credit scoring, recovery of debt, processing of publicly available personal data and the operation of search engines”.
The bill also empowers the Centre to exempt any government agency from the application of the proposed legislation.
IT panel meeting on WhatsApp snooping cancelled
Strangely, a meeting of the standing committee on IT, which was scheduled to take place today, was postponed by the Speaker.
Legal and privacy experts, who were due to depose before the panel, expressed their reservations on Wednesday evening.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee meeting on IT has been cancelled on the orders of the speaker.
I was due to depose before the committee at 3 pm. Discussion was supposed to be on law and policy on tech & privacy including perhaps the recent WhatsApp #Pegasus case.
— Prasanna S (@prasanna_s) December 11, 2019
The Standing Committee depositions for today were cancelled as per speakers orders. We are concerned but hope that depositions are permitted and rescheduled soon. https://t.co/0mVdEq2K3w
— Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) (@internetfreedom) December 11, 2019
Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla appeared to today, in a manner seemingly rare/unprecedented for the Indian Parliament, intervene to overturn and kill a hearing into #NSO #Pegasus illegal hacking surveillance meant to be held by the Standing Committee of IT chaired by @ShashiTharoor
— Raman Chima (@tame_wildcard) December 11, 2019
Tharoor later tweeted out that the meeting was postponed in “view of a 3-line whip issued by BJP to its Rajya Sabha MPs which would make it impossible for them to attend”. However, the Congress leader criticised the manner in which a few other standing committees were allowed to meet.
2/2 I specifically asked the Speaker whether his request affected all Committee meetings scheduled for today. He assured me it did. I am shocked to learn that the other Committees held their meetings &ours was the only one not allowed to meet. Does theGovt have something to hide? pic.twitter.com/s6xFprwRWr
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) December 11, 2019