Cabinet reshuffle may delay first data privacy law
India’s first data privacy law faces further delays as several members of a parliamentary committee, including its head, have been made ministers, weeks before its crucial report was expected to be presented to parliament during the Monsoon Session.
The draft Personal Data Protection law was introduced in parliament in December, 2019 and is meant to provide the legal framework for the right to privacy of Indian citizens. But it was soon referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee to iron out several contentious issues.
Members of the committee, people aware of the process and legal experts say replacements will now need to be appointed before the JPC report can be tabled.
“The draft report remains to be circulated among members of the panel,” said a person aware of the developments, asking not to be named.
The 30-member committee (which has two vacancies) includes Meenakshi Lekhi, who is the head, Ajay Bhatt, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Bhupender Yadav, and Ashwini Vaishnaw. These five were inducted in the government as ministers on Wednesday, which means they no longer can be part of the committee.
The JPC got an extension first till the Winter Session last year, then until the first week of the second half of the Budget Session this year, and finally until the Monsoon Session this month. The committee has met various stakeholders, including industry representatives and civil society members.
The bill covers the cross-border transfer of data and the use of personal data by government and private companies, and lays down penalties for entities that jeopardise the right to privacy of Indian citizens, which was held as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court in August, 2017.
The scope of the report is believed to have been expanded to cover not just personal data protection but also non-personal data. The panel’s report will aim to address “reasonable purposes for data sharing, exemptions for government agencies and sensitive personal data”, a person familiar with the matter said.
Congress MP Manish Tewari, who is a member of the panel, alleged the report is stuck because “there is pressure on the government” from social media companies. “It has been seven months since deliberations of the committee closed. The chair made the committee members sit during the worst phase for Covid because she wanted to complete the report early. The draft is yet to be circulated not because she has not made the draft report, but obviously, since there is pressure from the social media companies on the government to not have a data protection law,” he said.
“Ravi Shankar Prasad (former electronics and information technology minister) has been sacrificed at the altar of pleasing the social media giants. It is clear that social media companies are more powerful than the government.”
Lekhi and Prasad did not respond to requests for a comment on these positions.
Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh said he requested for the draft report of the bill to be circulated to its members. “Now, chairperson has become a minister along with 3 members. What happens now to committee & draft report? The new ministers had much to say on the Bill!” he said.
Former Lok Sabha secretary general PDT Achary said since it is a committee report, there is a sense of urgency to it. “If the Speaker wants, he can appoint a new chairperson today.”
He added the procedure to be followed will depend on whether the chairperson has directed the secretariat to circulate the report. Achary said in that case, it will have to circulate a copy before a new chair is appointed.
“Otherwise, the new chairperson will have to issue the directions,” he said. “The vacancies in the panel will be filled up once the parliamentary affairs minister gives the names of the new members to be added to the panel.”
According to Asia-Pacific policy director at Access Now, Raman Chima, “A reminder that if an MP is appointed a Minister, they have to immediately leave any parliamentary committee and new folks appointed,” he said. “Ultimately of course, it’s a topic of extreme contestation as to whether on the really big issues of the present Government of India the individual ministers have much say beyond what the civil service and establishment connected to the PM’s office, Home Ministry, CabSec want.”
Kazim Rizvi, founding director, The Dialogue, concurred with Chima and said that there might be a delay in appointing a new chairperson, “but we cannot ascertain for sure”.
“Vacancies in the Committee can be filled by appointment or election by the House, based on a motion or the nomination by the Speaker,” he said. “Since ministers cannot hold membership to the standing committees, we will have a new chairperson of the JPC. The chairperson of the Committee has to be appointed by the Speaker from amongst the members.”
HT reached out to the ministry of electronics and information technology but did not get an immediate response. This copy will be updated once the ministry responds