17 Dec 2019: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) On Personal Data Protection Bill: Unfulfilled promise
- India’s Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 starts encouragingly, seeking to protect “the privacy of individuals relating to their personal data”. But by the end, it is clear it is not designed to deliver on the promise.
- For, even as it rightly requires handlers of data to abide by globally-accepted rules - about getting an individual’s consent first - it disappointingly gives wide powers to the Government to dilute any of these provisions for its agencies.
- The Bill, which was tabled in Parliament by the Electronics and IT Minister on December 11, has now been referred to a joint committee, to be headed by the BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi.
- The committee is expected to table its report during the Budget session. Technically, therefore, this is not beyond redemption yet. But recent events have cast doubts about whether the Government is serious about delivering on the privacy promise.
- Recently, messaging platform WhatsApp said that some Indian journalists and rights activists were among those spied using technology by an Israeli company, which by its own admission only works for government agencies across the world.
- Google too had alerted 12,000 users, including 500 in India, regarding “government-backed” phishing attempts against them. The Indian Government has still not come out in the clear convincingly regarding these incidents.
- Importantly, one of the first to raise a red flag about the Bill’s problematic clauses was Justice B.N. Srikrishna, whose committee’s report forms the basis of the Bill.
- He has used words such as “Orwellian” and “Big Brother” in reaction to the removal of safeguards for Government agencies. In its report last July, the committee noted that the dangers to privacy originate from state and non-state actors.
- It, therefore, called for exemptions to be “watertight”, “narrow”, and available for use in “limited circumstances”. It had also recommended that the Government bring in a law for the oversight of intelligence-gathering activities, the means by which non-consensual processing of data takes place.
- A related concern about the Bill is regarding the constitution of the Data Protection Authority of India, which is to monitor and enforce the provisions of the Act. It will be headed by a chairperson and have not more than six whole-time members, all of whom are to be selected by a panel filled with Government nominees.
- This completely disregards the fact that Government agencies are also regulated under the Act; they are major collectors and processors of data themselves.
- The sweeping powers the Bill gives to the Government renders meaningless the gains from the landmark K.S. Puttaswamy vs. Union of India case, which culminated in the recognition that privacy is intrinsic to life and liberty, and therefore a basic right.
- That idea of privacy is certainly not reflected in the Bill in its current form. India’s efforts to protect the personal data of its citizens fall short of privacy requirements.
2) On UN climate change conference: Climate of inaction
- If climate change is the defining issue of the century, the UN conference in Madrid failed miserably in galvanising action to address it.
- This year’s outcome is all the more depressing because nearly 200 delegates representing rich and poor countries had the benefit of new scientific reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning of near-certain catastrophic consequences of inaction.
- An analysis from the UN Environment Programme on the gap between current greenhouse gas emissions and the limit over the coming decade.
- Eventually, in Spain, the Conference of the Parties to the Paris Agreement, degenerated into an unproductive wrangle over establishing a market system to trade in carbon credits earned through reductions in emissions.
- Some countries are eager to cash in on poorly audited emissions savings from the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol that preceded the Paris pact.
- Such horse trading stands in contrast to the real losses from extreme weather events that climate-vulnerable countries, India included, are facing with frightening regularity: even insured losses worldwide during 2017 and 2018 together stood at a record $225 billion, while the bulk of destruction had no such risk cover.
- These dire data should have imbued the climate negotiations with urgency and purpose, but the final declaration was desultory, merely expressing serious concern at the emissions gap in seeking to limit temperature increase to 1.5° C.
- Climate negotiators might have tossed the more intractable questions - raising $100 billion a year from 2020 for developing countries, creating a strong framework to address loss and damage from climate events and transferring technology to poorer countries on reasonable terms - to the next conference a year later, but they cannot avoid rising pressure from civil society in several countries for concrete action.
- One of the models that will be closely studied is the Green Deal that has been announced by the European Commission, with binding targets for member nations to cut emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and go net zero by 2050.
- This approach could potentially make the EU the leader in global climate action, a position that the U.S. never adopted, and China will take longer to aspire for. India’s own status as a low per capita carbon emitter offers little comfort as its overall emissions are bound to grow.
- With a low base compared to other major nations, it may well achieve its initial voluntary targets under the Paris Agreement, but a shift away from fossil fuels is inevitable in the longer term. India should not take comfort from its status as a low per capita carbon emitter.
- As it prepares to face calls for higher ambition in 2020 and beyond, India has to involve its States in mitigation and adaptation efforts. Death and destruction by frequent storms, floods and droughts should lead to urgent cohesive action.