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.
In the recently concluded Winter Session of Parliament, nine Bills were introduced. Of the Bills introduced, 4 bills have been referred to the relevant Standing Committee for examining the Bill. The Standing Committees have been given three months to scrutinize the bills, hold consultations and present a report. Details of these Bills are: 1. The Forward Contracts (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2010 (to be examined by the Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution) 2. The Multi-State Co-operative Societies (Amendment) Bill, 2010 (to be examined by the Committee on Agriculture) 3. The NIMHANS, Bangalore Bill, 2010 (to be examined by the Committee on Health and Family Welfare) 4. The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 (to be examined by the Committee on Finance) The composition of the Standing Committees examining the Bills can be found here. Typically, during the process of review the parliamentary standing committees issue advertisements in newspapers inviting public feedback and comments on the Bill. As and when the advertisements appear, details can be found on the PRS website.
In recent public discourse over lobbying, two issues that have underscored the debate are:
- Greater transparency in the policymaking process, and
- Equality of access for all stakeholders in engaging with the process.
There is a need to build linkages between citizens and the policy making process, especially by strengthening scrutiny before a Bill is introduced in Parliament. Currently, there is no process established to ensure pre-legislative scrutiny by the citizenry. Other democracies incorporate several measures to enhance public engagement in the pre-legislative process. These include:
- Making all Bills available in the public domain for a stipulated period before introducing them in the legislature. This includes, publishing these Bills in forms (language, medium etc) that are accessible to the general public.
- Making a report or Green paper on the legislative priorities addressed by the Bill available for citizens.
- Forming adhoc committees to scrutinise the Bill before it is piloted in the House.
- Having Standing Committees examine the Bill before introducing it in the House.
- Providing a financial memorandum for each Bill, which specifies the budgetary allocation for the process/bodies created by the Bill.
- Creating online fora for discussion. For the sections of the stakeholders who have limited access to the internet, efforts are made to proactively consult them through other media.
- Expanding the purview of citizens’ right to petition their representatives with legislative proposals.
There are several instances, in the last few years itself, wherein civil society groups have played an active role in the development of pre-legislative scrutiny in India.
- Public consultation with cross-section of stakeholders when drafting a Bill: The Right to Information Act is seen as a landmark legislation when highlighting the role of civil society actors in the drafting of a Bill. It also serves as a prime example for how it the movement mobilised widespread public opinion for the Bill, bringing together different sections of the citizenry.
- Public feedback on draft Bills: In several cases, after a Bill has been drafted the concerned ministry or public body publishes the Bill, inviting public comments. The Right to Education Bill, the National Identification Authority Bill and the Draft Direct Taxes Code Bill 2009 are recent cases in point. These announcements are made through advertisements published in newspapers and other media. For instance, the government has recently proposed to amend the rules of the RTI and has invited public feedback on the rules by December 27.
- Engaging with legislators: It is important to expand engagement with lawmakers after the Bill has been introduced in Parliament, as they will determine what the law will finally contain. This is done by approaching individual legislators or members of the committee which is likely to examine the legislation. Standing Committees invite feedback on the Bill through newspaper advertisements. For instance, the Standing Committee examining the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill heard testimonies from journalists, civil society groups, thinktanks, public bodies and government departments.
The role of the media and channelising the potential of the internet are other key approaches that need to be explored. Other examples and channels of engagement with the legislative process are illustrated in the PRS Primer on Engaging with Policymakers