The Post Office Bill 2023, which allows government interception of letters and shipments via post and exempts post officers from any liability, was passed in the Rajya Sabha on December 4, 2023. The Bill presented by Ashwini Vaishnaw, Union Minister of Communications and Information and Broadcasting, will next be heard before the Lok Sabha.
What is the Post Office Bill, 2023? It seeks to modernize and reform the functioning of the postal system in India and overhaul the Indian Post Office Act, 1898. While the motion was ultimately passed in the Rajya Sabha, many opposition Ministers raised concerns regarding Clause 9 and 10 of the Bill alleging the provisions violated the right to privacy and federal principles of the Constitution.
Why it matters: The interception of mail by the government is similar to end-to-end encryption debate in the virtual world. The government demands backdoor entry into these encrypted messasges in the name of maintaining law and order and national security. As such many concerns about privacy, creation of a ‘surveillance state’ and search and seizure come up in this discussion as well. Many of these concerns were put forward by many MPs on Monday, many of which we have listed below.
Detailed contentions raised by MPs
Bill compromises right to privacy: Shaktisinh Gohil of the INC was the first to raise concerns about the provision of the Bill relating to power to intercept shipments and its impact on the right to privacy.
“Right to Privacy is the fundamental right. I know that security is important and that you’re doing this to protect people. But in the name of security, we have all seen recently how a company renowned globally for its hard-to-intercept software warned that “State-sponsored hackers are trying to hack your mobile.” We MPs also got this message. Where are we headed?” said Gohil referring to a recent Apple warning that made the news.
No clarity on grounds for interception: Gohil argued that the government gave itself a wide range for interception by failing to provide clarity on the “certain grounds” for interception. He gave the example of one provision that said “An interception may be carried out on the occurrence of any public emergency.” He pointed out that the Bill does not explain what qualifies as “public emergency.” Instead, the Bill goes on to include another grounds “in the interest of public safety or tranquility” which is also not clarified.
Similarly, Sukhendu Sekhar Ray of the AITC called the ground “absolutely vague.” Specifically about emergency, he said the undefined use of the word gives unbridled powers to the authorities concerned. “I remember one of the Supreme Court verdicts, which was given in 1996 in the case of interception of telecommunications. That was a 1996 case. There, the Supreme Court held that a just and fair procedure to regulate the power of interception must exist; otherwise, it is not possible to safeguard the rights of citizens under Article 19(1)(a) as a part of Freedom of Speech and Expression and Article 21, the Right to Privacy as a part of Right to Life and Liberty,” he said.
Further, Sandosh Kumar P of the CPI said Clause 9 and its sub-clauses “will turn our post office into Pegasus offices… Why do you link each and every aspect of life, each and every institution, with the security of the nation? The interest of security of the nation is a concept which can be misused. The Government have mis-used it many times. Please leave these poor post offices from the scope of operation of this concept.”
Vaishnaw’s response: The Minister said that considering the current times and India’s complex and diverse society, “it is very important that interception is done and this kind of a provision is kept in the law for purposes of national security.”
Violation of federal principles: A A Rahim of the CPI(M), said the Bill removes the authority of state governments or their authorised officers to intercept a shipment, vesting this power entirely on the Centre or its designated officers.
No clarity on the authority in-charge: The Bill states that “interceptions may be carried out by the Central Government, State Governments, or any officer specially authorised by them.” However, it does not specify how these officers will be selected. This is important considering a following provision gives the officer in-charge to “open, detain, destroy” an intercepted shipment. Many Ministers raised this concern.
Unclear procedure for interception of items: Ray said Clause 9, sub-clause (1) of the Bill fails to specify the procedures for interception by the authorized postal officer.
“About national security, every citizen of this country is concerned and we are also concerned. Had there been any provision, based on the information received from central agencies, which are dealing with the national security point, then also, we could have agreed to this provision. But, on the basis of even suspicion, can the authorized officer intercept, open, destroy or do anything which he wants to do? This is arbitrary,” said Ray, adding that even the Supreme Court has held in the past that arbitrariness in executive action is anti-thesis to the rule of law.
Vaishnaw’s response: The Minister said the government will provide the procedure for interception through rules that will be framed and put them before the Parliament. It will be very fair and transparent, he said.
A step towards surveillance state: P Wilson of the DMK said that the powers under the Bill, in the absence of guidelines, is “another step towards the surveillance State” which violates Articles 14, 19(1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution. He raised the question of how any post officer can be qualified to exercise search and seizure powers.
“By granting such powers, the privacy of all the citizens who use the services of Indian Posts is severely compromised since there is no provision in the Bill which injuncts the officer from leaking any contents of the intercepted postal articles,”
Similarly, Raghav Chaddha of the AAP, listing “big brother syndrome” as a big issue with this Bill said, “This is a method for the government to monitor its citizens, to see what they communicate, what they do and what they discuss, what they’re writing to each other.”
Overlapping powers to the Union and Director General: Wilson said the Bill grants parallel powers to both the Union and the Director General to frame rules and regulations for conducting any functions essential for running of a Post Office. According to the MP this highlights the ambiguity and overlapping powers of the two entities in framing the rules and regulations for delivery of several postal services.
No penalties for wrong-doers: Clause 10, Sub-Clause (2) of the Bill exempts officers in the post office from incurring any liability “with regard to a service provided by the Post Office, unless the Officer acted fraudulently or wilfully caused loss, delay or mis-delivery of service.” The previous Act penalised the faulting authority with imprisonment of up to two years. No such consequences have been stated in the Bill, said Ray.
No provision for compensation: Wilson pointed out that the Bill does not have a provision that considers the value of the articles to be dispatched through post when exempting the post office from liabilities. He said that many private players will offer the value of the article in transit or the money-back guarantee in case of any lapse of services.
“The Indian Postal Department seeks to absolve itself from compensating from any loss caused due to the lapse in services. This indeed can open the way for abuses as the party empowered to impose such rules is an interested party,” he said.
No provisions to control private player: MP Sandosh Kumar P of the CPI, said the Bill take away value from secrecy and privacy while providing no provisions to control private players. The lack of compensation in case of loss will send people towards private players.
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