Wednesday’s Cabinet expansion by Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw five members including the Chairperson of Joint Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill Meenakshi Lekhi being inducted into the Council of Ministers, raising questions over the long pending report of the panel. The inductees include the new Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw and his MoS Rajeev Chandrashekhar.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information and Technology (MeitY) helms the Bill.
The Bill seeks to provide protection of personal data of individuals and was introduced in December 2019 in Lok Sabha. It was referred to the Joint Parliamentary panel, headed by BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi, in February last year. It is yet to submit its report. Ms. Lekhi is now the Minister of State for MEA and also the Ministry of Culture.
The other Committee members now in the Cabinet are Bhupender Yadav, another Rajya Sabha MP, now Union Environment Minister, also handling the Ministry of Labour, and Nainital MP Ajay Bhatt, who is the new Minister of State for Ministries of Defence and Tourism.
Ten of the 30 members of the Committee had moved amendments against provision (Clause 35) in the legislation giving power to the Central government to exempt any agency of government from application of Act. The members have said that this clause makes the entire act infructuous.
The 10 members include Mr. Chandrashekhar, Congress MPs Jairam Ramesh, Manish Tewari, and Gaurav Gogoi, Trinamool Congress MPs Derek O’ Brien and Mahua Moitra along with Biju Janta Dal MPs Bharatuhari Mahtab and Amar Patnaik, BSP’s Ritesh Pandey, and Shiv Sena MP Shrikant Eknath Shinde. The Hindu has accessed a copy of the amendments moved by the committee members.
Invoking “sovereignty and integrity of India”, “public order”, “friendly relations with foreign states” and “security of the state”, the legislation gives powers to the Central government to suspend all or any of the provisions of this Act for government agencies.
In his amendment, Mr. Chandrashekhar had sought further tightening of the existing clause, adding “health emergencies”, “public safety emergencies” as the other scenarios allowing the Centre to step in to provide exemptions. He and other members also demanded that the Bill should revise the definition of a ‘Child’. Presently as per the act, anyone below 18-years of age has been described as a ‘Child’ Shiv Sena’s Shrikant Eknath Shinde wanted the age to be lowered to 12, arguing that the present COVID-19 pandemic has forced digital education of children which leaves them vulnerable, while Mr Chandrashekhar wanted it to be lowered to 16.
“For 6 months I’ve been requesting a draft report of the Joint Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill be circulated to its members. Now the Chairperson has become a Minister along with 3 members. What happens now to the Committee & draft report? The new Ministers had much to say on the Bill,” Committee member and senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh tweeted.
The Select Committee so far has held 66 meetings and its last sitting was on December 29 last year. Since then no consultations have taken place. The members were told that a draft report was ready and would soon be circulated.