Concerned about the non-compliance with established principles of pre-legislative consultation for the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022, leading right to information (RTI) activists from across the country are demanding a more rigorous and extensive process of public consultation.
They have sent a letter to Ashwini Vaishnaw, minister of electronics and information technology (MeitY) and Rajeev Chandrasekhar, minister of state in MeitY expressing concern about the frivolous manner of public involvement for such an important bill. Members of the National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information (NCPRI) argue that, “while MeitY 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.”
It may be recalled that:
- On 18 November 2022, MeitY published the draft Bill inviting comments and suggestions. 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.
- This newly amended 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.
As per the rules of the pre-legislative consultation policy adopted by the Union government in 2014, all draft legislation must be placed in the public domain for at least 30 days, inviting public comments. Also a summary of feedback or comments must be made public on the concerned ministry’s website prior to sending it for Cabinet approval. It 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.
The letter rues that, “contrary to these minimum standards for public consultation on draft legislations, 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 very purpose of public consultation - to encourage free exchange of ideas and concerns – is defeated by this kind of secrecy. Further, 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.”
Also, activists are distressed that the draft Bill is 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.
Hence, they are demanding that the text and the accompanying notes must be made available in Hindi and other regional languages. They also demand that the feedback should open offline alternatives for giving suggestions/ objections and feedback.
Activist Anjali Bhardwaj says, “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, less than half the population of India has ever accessed the internet. Rather than create impediments by insisting on only an online mode of consultation, the government must open up offline mechanisms including via post or courier for people to submit their comments on the draft Bill. Further, we urge your ministry to hold consultations at the state level to facilitate more widespread and deeper people’s engagement with the proposed legislation.”
The signatories to this letter include Ms Bhardwaj, Aruna Roy, Shailesh Gandhi, Venkatesh Nayak, Nikhil Dey, Rakesh Reddy, Pradip Pradhan, Pankti Jog, Dr Shaikh, Amrita Johri, Bhaskar Prabhu, Chakradhar Buddha, Praveer Peter, Ashish Ranjan, Kathyayini Chamaraj, Karuna M, Abey George, Ashok Kumar, Ashish Ranjan, Jayaram Venkatesan, Bhaskar Prabhu, Asmi Sharma, and Shankar Singh.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.