Personal Data Protection Bill Will 'Severely Restrict Scope of RTI Act': Activists Write to MPs

The National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information has written to MPs highlighting concerns regarding the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, which is likely to be introduced in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament.

New Delhi: The Digital Personal Data Protection (DPDP) Bill seeks to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act by “severely restricting its scope”, and seeks to give “wide discretionary powers” to the Union government both in rulemaking and vis-à-vis the oversight body, said National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) in a letter to members of parliament.

The NCPRI has written to MPs highlighting concerns regarding the DPDP Bill, which is likely to be introduced in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament. The upcoming session is set to commence on July 20.

The letter and note sent to MPs highlight several concerns regarding the DPDP Bill based on the draft which was made public by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology in November 2022 (the draft approved by cabinet is not available in the public domain), including the proposed changes to the RTI Act.

“The draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDP Bill) proposed by MeitY was expected to develop a framework balancing the need to protect certain kinds of personal data with the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005, which lays out the statutory framework for Indian citizens to access information, including personal information. However, the draft Bill fails to safeguard and harmonise the two,” the letter said.

The proposed amendment to Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act seeks to exempt all personal information. It does away with the exceptions carved out within the Section based on which even personal information could have been disclosed. Currently, in order to deny personal information, at least one of the following grounds has to be proven – information sought has no relationship to any public activity, or information sought has no relationship to any public interest, or information sought would cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy and PIO/appellate authority is satisfied that there is no larger public interest that justifies disclosure, the letter says.

“The proposed blanket exemption is especially problematic since it does not limit the exemption from disclosure to only sensitive personal information,” it adds.

The letter continues to argue that the proposal to amend the RTI Act through the Data Protection Bill appears to have been drafted based on an incorrect understanding of the RTI law. The draft Bill errs in interpreting the proviso to Section 8(1), which states that “information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person”, as being only applicable to Section 8(1)(j) and not to the whole of Section 8(1).

“A perusal of the original gazette notification of the RTI Act shows that by virtue of its placement and indentation, it is applicable to all of Section 8(1) and not merely Section 8(1)(j). There are several judicial pronouncements to this effect,” the letter adds.

Furthermore, the letter notes that it is well established that access to granular information, including personal information, is critical to empower people to undertake collective monitoring and ensure they are able to access their rights and entitlements. This principle is well recognised and has been adopted in various welfare programmes and schemes. “The proposed Bill will potentially place impediments and restrictions on such public disclosures.”

The letter has been endorsed by prominent activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Venkatesh Nayak, Nikhil Dey, Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, Pradip Pradhan, Pankti Jog, Dr. Shaikh, Aruna Roy, Shailesh Gandhi, Amrita Johri, Rolly Shivhare, Pradeep Raparia, among others.