The Rajasthan government, in September 2017, issued an ordinance that dealt a body blow to the cause of transparency and accountability in governance. Ironically enough, the same state saw the birth of the right to information movement in India!
The ordinance bars investigation of current and former public servants, including judges and magistrates, for allegations of corruption,...
As many as 22 eminent jurists and concerned citizens have sought more balance and greater transparency in the newly constituted Data Protection Committee. The Committee is set up by the Government to deliberate on a data protection framework for India.
One of the main contention of the signatories is on members of the Committee. The letter sent by the 22 signatories to Justice BN Shrikrishna (Chairman of the Committee), point out names of members and their bias towards citizen privacy and Aadhaar. In addition, presence of some of the members on this 10-member Committee is probable professional conflict of interests, the letter says.
Dr Ajay Bhushan Pandey, chief executive (CEO) of Unique Identification Authority of India – the agency that oversees Aadhaar enrolments, is a member of the Committee. Other members include Aruna Sundararajan (Secretary, Department of Telecom –DoT), Ajay Kumar (Additional Secretary, Electronics and IT Ministry); Rama Vedashree (CEO, Data Security Council of India) and Dr Arghya Sengupta (Research Director at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy), the think tank that assisted the government in drafting the Aadhaar Act.
This committee is chaired by Justice Srikrishna, in whom, the signatories says have complete faith and not a shred of doubt. The signatories – including Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah, former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, former Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, and senior lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Indira Jaising – said they were worried that most of the members on the panel expressed had support for Aadhaar in the past. Other signatories of the Letter include Aruna Roy, Dr Anupam Saraph, Nikhil Dey, Maj Gen SG Vombatkere, Shantha Sinha, Prof Trilochan Sastry and Venkatesh Nayak.
According to the Letter, members, listed below, are potentially biased towards Aadhaar or against citizen privacy and there are probable professional conflicts of interest (information provided is only indicative and what exists in the public domain):
1. Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary, Department of Telecom: The DoT is currently pushing Aadhaar-mobile linkage. She had stated that linking SIMs with Aadhaar “is in your interest and my interest”
2. Dr Ajay Bhushan Pandey, CEO, UIDAI: Leading the Aadhaar project all over the country and who, even before the work of this committee is complete, has already stated that the “Aadhaar Act will pass privacy test”.
As a first step towards greater transparency in the working of this committee, Rethink Aadhaar demands public release of the following:
1. All available information related to the formation of the expert committee.
2. The data protection bill drafted by MietY that is being considered by this committee.
3. Composition of the working groups that have been formed.
4. Minutes of all the meetings and complete information relating to the formation of this committee.
“This Committee is important because it will lead to a legislation which will lay the contours of privacy in India; building up from the historic judgment passed by a nine-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India. The privacy judgment, in fact, refers to this committee, whose work will have a bearing on the collection and use of data by commercial entities as well as for projects such as Aadhaar,” the Letter says.
Here is the letter signed by eminent jurists, Aadhaar petitioners and other concerned citizens…
Last few days, I had a small experience of what can happen if one is digitally shut down. All of a sudden, the nightmare scenario of what can happen if one is shutdown by a universally linked 'Aadhaar’ became almost real — that too with just my telephone company going into an unexplained shut down with no recourse. When Reliance Communication (RCom) suddenly switched me off on 25th October, it did not merely cut me off my communication with friends, family and social networks, but snapped my financial transactions too. My mobile number is linked with all my bank accounts. For the 10 days, I did not receive any transaction alert, one time passcode (OTP) or balance SMS. Luckily, after much effort, frantic calls to helplines, RCom executives (whose phones were not reachable) and trying to get answers on social media, my mobile connection has been re-activated today.
Earlier today I received a well argued WhatsApp forward about what could happen if your Aadhaar, linked to your bank account and phone could do to you. It reminded us about how, during the biggest threat to our democracy — the Emergency — leaders like George Fernandes and Dr Subramanian Swamy went underground disguised as turbaned Sikhs. They were able to travel incognito, raise money and garner support from people against the Indira Gandhi government. "With the increased encroachment of Aadhaar upon our lives, this is not possible any more” said the post, which is going viral on social media.
In one of his speeches, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had described how he, Dr Swamy and other people fought against Indira Gandhi government during the emergency days.
The social media post says, "Under such a circumstance (emergency), just switching off your cell phone will not be sufficient to avoid the government from tracking you down. Thanks to Aadhaar, you will not be able to withdraw money or make any transaction using even a debit card. The government is linking Aadhaar to train tickets and boarding passes. You will not be able to travel. Being a centralised database, it just takes a few seconds to switch off your Aadhaar authentication. That can deny you your own money, deny you any movement, deny you any form of communication. You cannot hide behind an alias. It is linked to your biometrics. The government does not need to even arrest you. It can just deny your existence in a matter of few seconds. You are not dead, but you can be termed dead in a matter of few seconds. You can be Switched Off!"
Exactly same thing happened with me but with my mobile connection from RCom. One fine day RCom, the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group company, decided to get out of the mobile retail business and simply pulled the plug without any formal communication to its subscribers, stock exchanges (it’s a listed entity and mandated to share all updates) and even the telecom regulator.
On 25 October 2017, RCom disconnected my mobile number. All my incoming, outgoing calls, messages and data connection was down. When I tried to make a call from that number, I received a message to contact the customer care (198 and 022-30333333). Nevertheless, that proved to be another disaster. When I called RCom's customer care number, after lot of efforts, I received a message "Due to emergency situation you cannot access our services". This was same case even when I tried calling from other phone to RCom landline number for customer service centre.
All my efforts to connect with RCom Customer Care, its Nodal Officer and other senior officials, were unfruitful. I then sent emails, but there too was no response till date. The only person, I managed to speak with was a senior executive from RCom. However, after few days, he too stopped receiving my calls or responding to my messages.
I then escalated the matter with Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Department of Telecom (DoT). TRAI is the telecom regulator, but despite my several emails, nobody, including its Chairman RS Sharma (who was incidentally Director General of Unique Identification Authority of India -UIDAI) even acknowledged my mail. Forget about replying.
My mail to Manoj Sinha, Telecom Minister, evoked some response, but it was more pathetic than not receiving any reply at all. Mr Sinha's office forwarded my message to DoT's Director for Public Grievances, who told me to file my complaint through the PGPortal. When I replied saying that I had sent a notice (yes, the situation had become hopeless by then) and not grievance, I received the same automated reply from the Director.
Finally, on 3 November 2017, my mobile was 'reactivated' as per the SMS I received. However, since RCom is shutting its shop (well for retail mobile), I was told that my re-activated connection will be alive for few more days only. This also means I need to go for mobile number porting (MNP). However, there is another big issue. Even after trying to send several messages to 1900 for MNP, I still have to get a porting code, without which, I cannot switch.
In the meantime, and as per my conversation with an executive from RCom, I paid all my current outstanding dues (not related with disconnection, though) and is promised that they will not block my porting request and issue no objection as soon as such request comes to them. Well I am keeping my fingers crossed.
The viral post on social media puts these things rightfully. It says, "We do not need rights or protection for Achhe Din. Rights and protection are meant for the bad times. But it is during the good times, it is important to not lose sight of how bad times can be and what we need to protect about ourselves."