Data Protection Bill: Jairam Ramesh's Dissent
The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, treats the government and its agencies as a privileged class whose operations are always in public interest and individual privacy concerns are secondary, former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh has said in his dissent note against a parliamentary committee report on the legislation.
Ramesh is on the 30-member Joint Parliamentary Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill headed by PP Chaudhary, former minister of state for law and justice.
The committee adopted its report on Nov. 22 with dissent notes from some members, including Ramesh. The bill itself was tabled in the Lok Sabha in December 2019 and was subsequently referred to the JPC, which comprises members from both houses of the parliament. For two years deliberations have been underway while citizens await a law to protect their digital data.
The bill was preceded by a report of an expert committee headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice BN Srikrishna. Significant changes were made by the government to the committee's version, which drew criticism both inside and outside the parliament.
This is nothing but giving a blank cheque to the State to say "you write whatever you want on that, signature is already there", Justice Srikrishna had said in March 2020. He had also called the bill a step towards an Orwellian State. The opposition, too, attacked the government for a growing "snooping industry’’.
Jairam Ramesh's dissent note, posted on Twitter, reiterated some of these concerns, specifically on:
Section 12 which lays down grounds for processing personal data without consent.
Section 35 which allows the central government to exempt any of its agencies from the purview of the bill.
‘Section 35 Gives Unbridled Powers To The Central Government’
Section 35 of the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, allows the government to exempt any of its agencies from the purview of the bill:
In the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign States, public order.
For preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence related to the above grounds.
The reasons for the exemption are required to be given in writing.
In the committee meetings, Ramesh said he proposed that the exemption to government agencies should require parliamentary approval. When that didn't get accepted, he suggested that instead of requiring parliamentary approval for exemption, the written reasons for granting the exemption should be tabled in the parliament. That, too, got rejected.
I was willing to compromise provided the JPC had recommended that the reasons for exemptions would be recorded in writing, as provided for in the bill, would be tabled in both Houses of Parliament … but even that was not found acceptable.Dissent Note By Jairam Ramesh
Make Section 12 "Less Sweeping"
The data protection bill lays down grounds when personal data can be processed without consent. These include cases where a service or benefit to the user is being granted by the government, issuing of any certification, licence or permit to the user, among others.
The note by Ramesh says the exemptions should be less sweeping and automatic. He proposes the test of proportionality to be included while allowing processing of personal data without consent.
The reason, the note says, is the Supreme Court judgment in the Right To Privacy case which held that any curbs on right to privacy must pass the test of proportionality.
Further, the exemption under Section 12 for providing service and benefits should be limited to only those services which are provided by the state through its consolidated fund, he says.
The bill creates an exception for the conditions under which the State can collect personal data of individuals without their consent. Any exception and exemption under the law should be narrowly tailored.Dissent note by Jairam Ramesh
The final report of the parliamentary committee isn't yet available in the public domain. The report is likely to be presented to the Lok Sabha speaker and tabled in the upcoming winter session of the parliament.