Congress leader Shashi Tharoor-led Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology was barred by the Lok Sabha Speaker from holding its scheduled meeting on Wednesday, while the scheduled meetings of other Committees were held.
Tharoor said that the Speaker had asked him on Wednesday morning to postpone the meeting of the IT Committee in view of a whip issued by BJP to its Rajya Sabha members which would make it impossible for them to attend and, therefore, he deferred it to December 13.
He asked the Speaker if the meetings of all the Standing Committees scheduled for Wednesday have been deferred on the same ground, that is, unavailability of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Rajya Sabha MPs, the Speaker affirmed it.
However, Tharoor later found out that the meetings of all others meeting were held as per schedule, and on top of that, the matter of data protection had been referred to a Joint Select Committee of both Houses chaired by a BJP member.
"I specifically asked the Speaker whether his request (to postpone Committee’s meeting) affected all Committee meetings scheduled for today. He assured me it did. I am shocked to learn that the other Committees held their meetings and ours was the only one not allowed to meet,” Tharoor shared on Twitter.
For Wednesday’s meeting, the Committee on IT had on its agenda to hear the views of cyber security experts on the subject 'Citizens Data Security and Privacy' and to hear the views of non-official witnesses and India representatives of WhatsApp on the subject.
In the Lok Sabha, Communication and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, while moving a resolution in the House, said as the subject is sensitive, the Bill should be discussed in Parliamentary committees. The resolution was passed by voice vote.
The joint committee will have 20 members from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha.
However, Tharoor took strong exception to the government’s proposal to send the bill to a joint select committee, saying it would send a dangerous precedent of government bypassing the designated panel whenever a contentious legislation is under consideration.
He insisted that all matters related to information technology must be referred to the established mechanism of the Standing Committee.
"Dismayed by the government doing an end-run around the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology by allocating the Data Privacy Bill to a 'joint select committee' which the BJP will chair… Does the government have something to hide?" he added.
The Opposition has raised concerns of surveillance by the government.
The proposed legislation has created an unease after it came to light that it will empower the government to allow the use of personal and non-personal data of users in some cases, especially when national security is involved.
It will allow the government to ask companies including Facebook, Google and others for "anonymised" personal and non-personal data.
Several legal experts have already red-flagged the issue and said the provision will give the government unaccounted access to personal data of users in the country.
The Bill defines personal data as information that can help in the identification of an individual and has characteristics, traits and other features of a person's identity.
The Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram also wrote a letter to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and expressed his concerns over the issue.
"The exercise in creating a Joint Select Committee on a matter that rests squarely within the purview of an existing Standing Committee sets a dangerous precedent since it will allow the government to bypass the designated standing committee in every instance where a contentious bill is under consideration," Tharoor said in his letter to Birla.
Tharoor said that creating a Joint Select Committee to examine the Personal Data Protection Bill, instead of sending it to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, sets a dangerous precedent
"It would effectively render our Parliamentary Committees ineffective since it will prevent them from undertaking their primary responsibility which is to provide effective oversight of the relevant government department," he said.
In a "brazen disregard" for the Standing Committee, and by extension the parliamentary convention relating to such panels, this government has chosen to establish a Joint Select Committee presumably to extend its control by a chairman from the ruling party, he said.
Tharoor said that the decision of creating a Joint Select Committee not only undermines the utility of India's Constitution, but is also a "scathing indictment" of the effectiveness of the Indian Parliament as an institution to promote the exercise of deliberative democracy that all elected representatives are here to protect, he said.
"The Committee on IT, that has been formed under your leadership and of which I have the privilege to serve as its chairman, has both a mandate and a parliamentary responsibility to examine all matters related to information technology, electronics, telecommunications, postal services and allied subjects," Tharoor said, adding that this includes legislation on these matters and the Personal Data Protection Bill.
In the letter, Tharoor urged Birla to "caution" the government against this "wilful exercise of undermining the House" and request the minister to send the legislation to the Standing Committee.