Parliament clears Telecommunications Bill, 2023 sans Opposition

Concerned about interception clause, YSR Congress says safeguards needed to prevent misuse; BJD says State’s role should have been clarified; BJP MP plays devil’s advocate after Opposition boycott

Updated - December 21, 2023 07:47 pm IST

Published - December 21, 2023 07:14 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw speaks in the Rajya Sabha during the Winter Session of Parliament in New Delhi on December 21, 2023.

Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw speaks in the Rajya Sabha during the Winter Session of Parliament in New Delhi on December 21, 2023. | Photo Credit: ANI

Amidst empty Opposition benches, the Rajya Sabha on Thursday passed the Telecommunications Bill, 2023. Members of the Biju Janata Dal and YSR Congress Party expressed concern about clauses allowing the Union government to intercept private communications. In the absence of any other adversarial voices, BJP MP Sushil Modi took it upon himself to point out the Opposition’s various criticisms of the legislation, even while defending it.  

Mr. Modi, who was the second speaker, said that the Opposition had often criticised the clauses that allow the government to temporarily take control of telecom services in the interest of national security, and that provide a non-auction route for the allocation of satellite spectrum. Defending the two clauses, Mr. Modi said that the 26/11 tragedy and several natural calamities have proven that they are needed. The “non-auction route” for the allocation of satellite spectrum is also essential for national security, he said.

Also Read | Incoming call: The Hindu Editorial on the introduction of the Telecommunications Bill, 2023

Phone tapping concerns

The legislation allows the government to retain its powers to intercept communications, by allowing for the tapping of phone connections pursuant to orders issued by an authorised Union or State government official, “if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient to do so, in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence and security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, or for preventing incitement to the commission of any offence.” Around 5,000 such interception orders were issued each month in 2015, the then-Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told Parliament; no subsequent statistics have been revealed.

The BJD’s Sasmit Patra welcomed the Bill, but said that it should have elaborated the role of the States regarding interception and search. Since many border States face the direct brunt of cross-border terrorism, they should be kept in the loop, he said. The YSR Congress Party’s S. Niranjan Reddy said that though the Bill does not provide for any judicial oversight, its rules should be clearly defined to guard the provision against any misuse.  

Short debate

The debate came to a close within an hour. At its conclusion, Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw applauded the progress made by the country in the sector. “In the last nine-and-half-years, India’s telecom sector has emerged from a very difficult period marred by scams to become a sunrise sector,” the Minister asserted.

He also said that, during the same period, the number of telecom towers had increased from six lakh in 2014 to 25 lakh at present, while the number of internet broadband users had grown from 1.5 crore to 85 crore over the same time period. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has executed the world’s fastest rollout of 5G technology, with most equipment manufactured indigenously, Mr. Vaishnaw said.

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