The Union government’s Cabinet Committee on Security recently gave clearance to the Home Ministry’s NATGRID project. The project aims to allow investigation and law enforcement agencies to access real-time information from data stored with agencies such as the Income Tax Department, banks, insurance companies, Indian Railways, credit card transactions, and more. NATGRID, like a number of other government initiatives (UIDAI), is being established through governmental notifications rather than legislation passed in Parliament. The examination of this issue requires an assessment of the benefits of legislation vis-a-vis government notifications. Government notifications can be issued either under a specific law, or independent of a parent law, provided that the department issuing such notification has the power to do so. Rules, regulations which are notified have the advantage of flexibility since they can be changed without seeking Parliamentary approval. This advantage of initiating projects or establishing institutions through government notifications is also potentially of detriment to the system of checks and balances that a democracy rests on. For, while legislation takes a longer time to be enacted (it is discussed, modified and debated in Parliament before being put to vote), this also enables elected representatives to oversee various dimensions of such projects. In the case of NATGRID, the process would provide Parliamentarians the opportunity to debate the conditions under which private individual information can be accessed, what information may be accessed, and for what purpose. This time consuming process is in fact of valuable import to projects such as NATGRID which have a potential impact on fundamental rights. Finally, because changing a law is itself a rigorous process, the conditions imposed on the access to personal information attain a degree of finality and cannot be ignored or deviated from. Government rules and regulations on the other hand, can be changed by the concerned department as and when it deems necessary. Though even governmental action can be challenged if it infringes fundamental rights, well-defined limits within laws passed by Parliament can help provide a comprehensive set of rules which would prevent their infringement in the first place. The Parliamentary deliberative process in framing a law is thus even more important than the law itself. This is especially so in cases of government initiatives affecting justiciable rights. This deliberative process, or the potential scrutiny of government drafted legislation on the floor of Parliament ensures that limitations on government discretion are clearly laid down, and remedies to unauthorised acts are set in stone. This also ensures that the authority seeking to implement the project is The other issue pertains to the legal validity of the project itself. Presently, certain departmental agencies maintain databases of personal information which helps them provide essential services, or maintain law and order. The authority to maintain such databases flows from the laws which define their functions and obligations. So the power of maintaining legal databases is implicit because of the nature of functions these agencies perform. However, there is no implicit or explicit authorization to the convergence of these independent databases. One may argue that the government is not legally prevented from interlinking databases. However, the absence of a legal challenge to the creation of NATGRID does not take away from the importance of establishing such a body through constitutionally established deliberative processes. Therefore, the question to be asked is not whether NATGRID is legally or constitutionally valid, but whether it is important for Parliament to oversee the establishment of NATGRID. In October 2010, the Ministry of Personnel circulated an “Approach paper for a legislation on privacy”. The paper states: “Data protection can only be ensured under a formal legal system that prescribes the rights of the individuals and the remedies available against the organization that breaches these rights. It is imperative, if the aim is to create a regime where data is protected in this country, that a clear legislation is drafted that spells out the nature of the rights available to individuals and the consequences that an organization will suffer if it breaches these rights.” As the lines above exemplify, it is important for a robust democracy to codify rights and remedies when such rights may be potentially affected. The European Union and the USA, along with a host of other countries have comprehensive privacy laws, which also lay down conditions for access to databases, and the limitations of such use. The UIDAI was established as an executive authority, and still functions without statutory mandate. However, a Bill seeking to establish the body statutorily has been introduced, and its contents are being debated in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance and the Bill has also been deliberated on by civil society at large. A similar approach is imperative in the case of NATGRID to uphold the sovereign electorate’s right to oversee institutions that may affect it in the future.
One of our earlier posts (read here) tackled the question of whether the Public Accounts Committee could summon ministers or not. According to a direction of the speaker, a Minister cannot be summoned by a financial committee. There are no specific procedures for the Joint Parliamentary Committees mentioned in the rules. However, according to the Directions by the Speaker general rules applicable to Committees shall apply to all Committees, though specific directions can be given for some committees (read here). In other words, the general directions for all committees would be the same, unless a specific direction was given relating to a particular committee. In the Joint Committee of Stock Market Scam and Matters relating there to, a specific request was made to the Speaker, Lok Sabha by the Chairman, JPC on 20th May, 2002 for permitting the Committee to call for written information on certain points from the Minister of Finance and Minister of External Affairs. The Speaker accorded the necessary permission on 1st June, 2002. Consequently, the Minister of Finance (Shri Jaswant Singh), the Minister of External Affairs (Shri Yashwant Sinha) and the former Finance and External Affairs ministers (Shri P. Chidambaram and Dr. Manmohan Singh respectively) testified before the Committee. Read the text of the report here.
Speaker Meira Kumar has urged political parties to arrive at a consensus on the women’s reservation bill. The 2008 Bill has the following main features. 1. It reserves one-third of all seats in Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies within each state for women. 2. There is quota-within-quota for SCs, STs and Anglo-Indians. 3. The reserved seats will be rotated after each general elections – thus after a cycle of three elections, all constituencies would have been reserved once. This reservation will be operational for 15 years. This Bill has had a chequered history. A similar Bill was introduced in 1996, 1998 and 1999 – all of which lapsed after the dissolution of the respective Lok Sabhas. A Joint Parliamentary Committee chaired by Geeta Mukherjee examined the 1996 Bill and made seven recommendations. Five of these have been included in the latest 2008 Bill. These are (i) reservation for a period of 15 years; (ii) including sub-reservation for Anglo Indians; (iii) including reservation in cases where the state has less than three seats in Lok Sabha (or less than three seats for SCs/STs); (iv) including reservation for the Delhi assembly; and (v) changing “not less than one-third” to “as nearly as may be, one-third”. Two of the recommendations are not incorporated in the 2008 Bill. The first is for reserving seats in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils. The second is for sub-reservation for OBC women after the Constitution extends reservation to OBCs. The 2008 Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice. This Committee failed to reach a consensus in its final report. The Committee has recommendedthat the Bill “be passed in Parliament and put in action without further delay. Two members of the Committee, Virender Bhatia and Shailendra Kumar (both belonging to the Samajwadi Party) dissented stating that they were not against providing reservation to women but disagreed with the way this Bill was drafted. They had three recommendations: (i) every political party must distribute 20% of its tickets to women; (ii) even in the current form, reservation should not exceed 20% of seats; and (iii) there should be a quota for women belonging to OBCs and minorities. The Standing committee considered two other methods of increasing representation. One suggestion (part of election commission recommendations) was to requite political parties to nominate women for a minimum percentage of seats. The committee felt that parties could bypass the spirit of the law by nominating women to losing seats. The second recommendation was to create dual member constituencies, with women filling one of the two seats from those constituencies. The Committee believed that this move could “result in women being reduced to a subservient status, which will defeat the very purpose of the Bill”. It is interesting to note that the Committee did not reject the two recommendations of the Geeta Mukherjee Committee that are not reflected in the Bill. The Committee concluded that the issue of reservations to Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils needs to be examined thoroughly as the upper Houses play an equally important role under the Constitution. Incidentally, it is not possible to reserve seats in Rajya Sabha given the current system of elections to that house (see Appendix below). On the issue of reservations to OBC women, the Committee said that “all other issues may be considered at an appropriate time by Government without any further delay at the present time in the passage of the Bill”. Though the Bill does not have a consensus – it has been opposed by SP, RJD and JD(U) – most parties have publicly expressed their support for it. The government will likely not find it difficult to muster two-third support in each House of Parliament were the Bill be taken up for consideration and passing. It would be interesting to see whether the Bill is brought before Parliament in the upcoming Budget Session. Appendix: Impossibility of Reservation in Rajya Sabha Article 80of the Constitution specifies that members of state assemblies will elect Rajya Sabha MPs through single transferable vote. This implies that the votes are first allocated to the most preferred candidate, and then to the next preferred candidate, and so on. This system cannot accommodate the principle of reserving a certain number of seats for a particular group. Currently, Rajya Sabha does not have reservation for SCs and STs. Therefore, any system that provides reservation in Rajya Sabha implies that the Constitution must be amended to jettison the Single Transferable Vote system.