After a four-month-long pandemic-induced hiatus and a false start, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill convened on July 27. The two-and-a-half-hour meeting, that saw attendance from 18 of the 30 MPs, largely focussed on Sections 35 and 36 of the Bill, the ones that allow the central government to exempt any government agency from any or all provisions of the Bill, four sources, on the condition of anonymity, who were present at the meeting told MediaNama. The next meeting is scheduled for August 10, two other people told us.

In addition to Sections 35 and 36, Section 96, as per which the Personal Data Protection Bill would override any other conflicting Act, was also discussed. In the five meetings that have happened thus far, “[Section] 96 is always referred along with [Sections] 35 and 36 because the three of them together negate everything in the Bill,” a source told us.

The Registrar General and Census Commissioner Vivek Joshi, though not listed in the schedule, also made an oral presentation. Both the NCRB and the Census Commissioner argued in favour of the necessity of exemptions under Sections 35 and 36, a source told us. The Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, under the Home Ministry, is responsible for carrying out the census, and for acting as the “National Registration Authority” for the controversial National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) and National Population Register (NPR), and the Commissioner argued for exemptions for creation of NPR and NRIC, two sources confirmed to us.

It is understood that the MPs largely concurred that if every agency wants an exemption, what is the use of this act?

The CEO of UIDAI Pankaj Kumar was also scheduled to submit oral evidence, but did not get time to present his oral evidence, two sources confirmed to us.

Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla and MEITY Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney deposed before the Committee. The latter was accompanied by Additional Secretary Rajendra Kumar, Cyber Law and E-Security Group Coordinator Rakesh Maheshwari, and Vikash Chourasia, Scientist C at MEITY and nodal officer for the data protection framework for India.

A number of agencies under the Home Ministry made their scheduled oral presentations: National Investigation Agency (represented by Director General Yogesh Chander Modi and Inspector General Anil Shukla), National Crime Record Bureau (Director Ram Phal Pawar and Joint Director (CCTNS) Sanjay Mathur though the latter did not make an oral presentation), Narcotics Control Bureau (Director General Rakesh Asthana).

Rajiv Luthra, founder and managing partner of Luthra and Luthra Partners, who was scheduled to present oral evidence before the JPC, did not present owing to “paucity of time”, three sources told us. He may be called by the Committee another time.

Other issues raised

The Committee members also asked that Justice B.N. Srikrishna, who headed the committee that released the report on personal data protection and the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018, be allowed to submit oral evidence before the Committee, two sources told us. “This is not the first time that such a request has been made in the meetings,” a source told us, and another said, “there has been resistance to the idea”. The recent ban on 59 Chinese apps and the expert committee’s report on non-personal data were not discussed, one of the sources told us.

The Schrems II judgement by the Court of Justice of the European Union, that struck down European Commission’s 2016 decision that held that the EU-US Data Protection Shield provides adequate protection to data of European users when it is transferred to the US, was also brought up by an MP but not discussed at length, two sources told us. The focus largely remained on exemptions that should be granted to government agencies for the purposes of national security, public order, and law enforcement.

Of the 18 MPs who were present, some of them are: Chairperson and Lok Sabha MP Meenakshi Lekhi (BJP), Lok Sabha MP P.P. Chaudhary (BJP), Lok Sabha MP Gaurav Gogoi (Congress), Lok Sabha MP Bhartruhari Mahtab (BJD), Lok Sabha MP Ritesh Pandey (BSP), Lok Sabha MP Manish Tewari (Congress), Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar (BJP), Rajya Sabha MP A. Navaneethakrishnan (AIADMK), Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh (Congress), Rajya Sabha MP Vivek Tankha (Congress), and Rajya Sabha MP Ram Gopal Yadav (SP).

Of the 12 MPs who were not present, five are: Rajya Sabha MP Amar Patnaik from BJD (due to 14-day quarantine requirement in Bhubaneswar), Lok Sabha MP Tejasvi Surya from BJP (who had to stay back in Bengaluru to mark a year of the BJP government in Karnataka), Lok Sabha MP Srikant Eknath Shinde from Shiv Sena (who was dealing with the pandemic in his constituency, Kalyan in Maharashtra), Lok Sabha MP Uday Pratap Singh from BJP (who was in his constituency due to COVID-19 related restrictions) and Lok Sabha MP Rajiv Ranjan Singh from JDU (who was in Patna).