MPs, activists oppose govt attempt to amend RTI Act through Data Protection Bill

The government’s decision to amend the Right to Information Act (2005) through the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDP Bill) has politicians and activists worried

Representative image
Representative image

NH Digital

The government’s decision to amend the Right to Information Act (2005) through the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDP Bill) has politicians and activists worried.

The draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022, which the Union Government intends to introduce in the ongoing Budget session of Parliament, removes provisions from Section 8(1)(j) that allow public interest disclosure. Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act allows public officials to refuse information if it intrudes on the privacy of an individual, but permits disclosure of information if there is an overriding public interest.

The draft Bill which was made public by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) in November 2022 fails to develop a framework balancing the need to protect certain kinds of personal data with the provisions of the RTI Act. The proposed Bill seeks to delete a key overarching provision which lays down the conditions under which even information which qualifies to be exempt from disclosure is liable to be provided under the RTI Act.

After the amendment, the RTI Act would “now say that any information that is personal will not be disclosed,” said Anjali Bhardwaj, Co-Convenor of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI). Several citizens expressed their concern that the amendments to the RTI Act will severely restrict the scope of the information access legislation. They were speaking at a discussion organised by the NCPRI.

“The government is weakening peoples’ rights and centralising power with itself. He said that in balancing the RTI and the data protection bill, no amendments should be made to the RTI Act. Whether the information is shared or not [if the Bill passes] will be at the whims and fancy of the Central government,” said Karti Chidambaram, Congress MP and member of the Standing Committee which examined the DPDP Bill.

Nikhil Dey of the NCPRI said that public disclosure of information was crucial for people to be able to access their rights. He cited the example of the MGNREGA public database which enables people to carry out public monitoring and tracking of funds, wages, work sites and said if such information is removed due to the DPDP Bill, people will find it impossible to access their rights.

The government’s tenure has been marked by dilution of peoples’ fundamental rights, underscored Jawhar Sircar, Trinamool Congress MP, while adding that despite the committee deliberating on the bill, there was no focus on the issue of its impact on the RTI Act. He is also on the IT Standing Committee.

The draft law was a “conspiracy” to weaken the RTI Act, said John Brittas, CPI(M) MP who is on the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology. He promised he would seek the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) for clarity on why six years after the K.S. Puttaswamy case in the Supreme Court, which affirmed the fundamental right to privacy, a data protection legislation was circulated for the committee only once.

Accessing information is already a challenge, pointed out senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and if the amendments came through, most of the information crucial for seeking accountability from the government would be outside the purview of the RTI Act.

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