New Delhi: The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) has in a letter to information technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, charged that “established principles of pre-legislative consultation” were not being complied with in relation to the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022.
The Campaign, which has also marked a copy of the letter to the minister of state in the ministry, Rajeev Chandrashekhar, pointed out how the new Bill has been brought in a surreptitious manner to bypass a discussion before the Joint Parliament Committee.
It said “an earlier Bill on a similar subject was referred to the Joint Parliamentary Committee which made extensive recommendations. In August 2022, the government withdrew the said Bill and has now put out a new scheme for processing people’s digital personal data in the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022.” The Campaign said it was on November 18, 2022 that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) then published the draft Bill inviting comments and suggestions.
‘Bill seeks to amend key provisions of RTI Act, so greater public consultation needed’
Stating that the Bill also seeks to amend key provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005 which will impact millions of citizens who employ it every year to seek greater transparency and accountability from public authorities, the NCPRI said “given the wide ramifications of the draft Bill, it is crucial that it be put through a more rigorous and extensive process of public consultation”.
Incidentally, this letter comes just a day after several information commissioners had expressed their fear that the Data Protection Bill would crush several key RTI Act provisions and make it even more difficult for citizens to obtain information through the Act.
The NCPRI letter also stated that while the ministry has invited feedback on the draft Bill, “the manner and procedure of inviting public feedback does not do justice to the established principles of pre-legislative consultation.”
‘Pre-legislative consultation policy not properly followed’
NCPRI reminded the two ministers that “the Pre-legislative Consultation Policy adopted by the Union Government in 2014 mandates that all draft legislation be placed in the public domain for at least 30 days, inviting public comments and a summary of feedback/comments received be made available on the concerned ministry’s website prior to sending it for Cabinet approval.”
It added that the mandate also requires that wide publicity be given to the consultation process and the draft legislation through print and electronic media, or in such other manner considered necessary to reach the affected people.
But going against these “minimum standards for public consultation on draft legislations”, NCPRI said the note by MeitY states that “submissions will not be disclosed and held in fiduciary capacity, to enable persons submitting feedback to provide the same freely. No public disclosure of the submissions will be made.”
The NCPRI objected to this stance saying, “the very purpose of public consultation – to encourage free exchange of ideas and concerns – is defeated by this kind of secrecy.”
The Campaign said information held by public authorities is subject to disclosure as per the provisions of the RTI Act and therefore, no arbitrary pre-conditions of confidentiality can be imposed.
‘Consultation process is exclusionary’
It also expressed its concern at the limited nature of the consultation around the draft Bill for two reasons. “First, it is currently available only in English and none of the languages included in the Eighth Schedule of our Constitution. Second, the Ministry has sought feedback only through the MyGov website and that too chapter-wise, with little scope for providing comments on matters that have been left out of the draft Bill,” the Campaign said in the letter.
The signatories to the letter, who included RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Aruna Roy, Shailesh Gandhi, Venkatesh Nayak, Nikhil Dey, Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, Pradip Pradhan, Pankti Jog, Shaikh Ghulam Rasool and Amrita Johri among others, also wrote that since the proposed legislation will affect people across the country, the text and the accompanying notes must be made available in Hindi and other regional languages.
Further, the letter said providing only an online mode to give feedback completely excludes hundreds of millions of people in the country who would not have the necessary digital know-how and resources to engage with the process. As per the government’s own surveys, NCPRI said, less than half the population of India has ever accessed the Internet. It urged the government to open offline mechanisms such as post or courier services for people to submit comments on the draft Bill.
Finally, the letter urged MeitY to hold consultations at the state level to facilitate more widespread and deeper people’s engagement with the proposed legislation. “Transparency and openness in the consultation process is key to ensuring peoples’ trust in the process and the institutional framework for protecting digital personal data that is proposed to be set up,” the activists wrote, seeking a meeting with the minister to discuss these issues in detail.