The Budget Session was adjourned sine die on April 06, 2023 in both Houses of Parliament amidst protests from the Opposition and treasury benches. During this Session, a total of 8 bills were introduced. 5 of these Bills were passed by the Lok Sabha, and 5 Bills were passed/returned by the Rajya Sabha; one other Bill, introduced originally in the Monsoon Session in August 2022, was also passed by both Houses of Parliament. In the Session, we also saw several key issues from a digital rights perspective taken up before the Houses of Parliament. In this post, we take a look at the disruptions during the Session, and analyse how the Parliament fared with respect to digital rights.
Why should you care?
The Budget Session of Parliament was held from January 31, 2023, to April 06, 2023, with a recess from February 14 to March 12. The Parliament adjourned sine die on April 06, having sat for 25 days. This Session saw limited legislative activity, and minimal discussion on the budget amidst continuous disruptions. Said to be the shortest since 1952, the 17th Lok Sabha did not function in a truly democratic manner. The Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2023 was the only Bill passed during this session (excluding Finance and Appropriation Bills). This Bill as well as the Finance Bill, 2023 were passed without any discussion by either House. These circumstances indicate an unease of doing Parliamentary business, affecting the functioning of the Indian democracy.
A look back
The Budget Session saw a total of 5 Finance and Appropriation Bills being introduced before Parliament for passage, as well as 3 other Bills for introduction. The Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2023, which was introduced in the Monsoon Session in August 2022, was also passed in both Houses of Parliament with little to no discussion. This is the final year of the 17th Lok Sabha’s term, with it having functioned for 230 sitting days so far. Data from PRS Legislative Research suggests that the 17th Lok Sabha is now unlikely to sit for more than 331 days, rendering it the shortest full-term Lok Sabha since 1952.
In this session, Lok Sabha functioned for 33% of its scheduled time, while the Rajya Sabha functioned for 24% of its scheduled time. Even with both houses being adjourned sine die on the last day of the session, it must be noted that this is the eighth consecutive time a session has been cut short, before its scheduled end. This session of Parliament was especially legislatively unproductive, with several key pieces of legislation, such as the draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022 - which was anticipated to be tabled during the Budget Session - not even being introduced. Most days, both Houses of Parliament were adjourned within minutes of being called, amidst vociferous protests from the Opposition and the Treasury benches. Moreover, some onlookers have voiced their dismay over the recent trend of the Secretariats to both Houses of Parliament increasingly serving executive interests.
A Mixed Bag: Analysing Budget 2023-2024
Although the overall budgetary allocations for MeitY, MIB, MHA, and DoT in the 2022-2023 budget had invoked conflicting sentiments, they remained under-utilised. Therefore, while the 2023-2024 Budget saw an enormous 64.77% increase in total planned capital expenditure of DoT, MeitY, MHA, and MIB (₹ 62,845.61 crores) over the RE of 2022-23 (₹ 38,139.55 crores), it remains to be seen what this will look like in the Revised Estimates (for 2023-2024) - where fund allocation has seen decreasing trends in previous years. With allocations towards Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA) being excluded entirely, concerns regarding the lack of significant capital expenditure remain. Additionally, an increase in allocation of funds towards the National Digital Health Mission raises alarm bells about the heretofore-unaddressed issues surrounding the implementation of the Universal Health Interface (UHI). Read our full analysis of the budget here and find our analysis of trends from previous budgets here.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY)
The total budgetary allocation for MeitY in the Budget for 2023-2024 is ₹16549.04 crores, a 15.73% increase from the previous year’s ₹14300 crores. The increase is even higher when compared to the Revised Estimates of 2022-2023, i.e., a year-on-year change of 41.2%. This is in contrast to the budgetary trends we witnessed in 2021,where there was under-utilisation of the budget. We appreciate the decision to increase budgetary allocation to MeitY in the FY 2023-2024 and hope to see these funds be directed towards infrastructure development aimed at increasing tele-connectivity and broadband connectivity, as well as overall digital literacy. However, in keeping with trends from recent years, the reducing funds allocated towards PMGDISHA have been replaced with no funds at all, marking the first time since 2017 that no funds have been allotted towards the rural digital literacy scheme.
Table 1: Budgetary allocations for specific items, MeitY
The allocation of funds towards the Digital India Program, Promotion of Digital Payments, and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) have all decreased, reflecting a decline of 55.08%, 29.8%, and 14.54% respectively. This is even in the face of the Finance Minister in their budget speech for this FY noting that “Fiscal support for this digital public infrastructure (digital payments) will continue in 2023-24.”
Department of Telecommunications (DoT)
In 2023-24, the Department has been allocated ₹ 97579.05, which is 15.35% increase over the budget allocated in 2022-23 (₹84586.80) and 19.25% over the RE 2022-23 (₹81821.11). Like in the 2022-2023 budget, much of the prescribed budget infuses capital into Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), with a 59.11% from the previous year’s Revised estimates. While allocation for the 5G Connectivity test bed saw a 28.16% decrease from 2022-2023, Bharatnet saw a significant increase of 233.33% from the previous year. In the latter case, the grant goes towards the creation of telecom infrastructure required for providing broadband connectivity to all the Gram Panchayats in the country and facilitating non-discriminatory access to service providers, for provisioning of broadband services in rural areas. On the other hand, in light of the decrease in funding for 5G connectivity, it remains to be seen how the goal of establishing 100 labs for developing applications using 5G services, as noted in the budget speech, will be achieved.
Table 2: Budgetary allocations for specific items, DoT
Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB)
In a positive move, the total budgetary allocation for MIB witnessed a 17% increase from the 2022-2023 Budget, and a 12% increase from RE for 2022-2023. However, this increase must be perceived with a note of caution, as the capital budgetary allocation has decreased by 10.86% in the current budget as compared to the previous revised budget. This reflects poorly on the MIB’s planned spending for the current financial year, as the majority of its budget increase is targeted towards revenue expenditure.
Table 3: Budgetary allocations for specific items (MIB)
National Digital Health Mission (NDHM)
The allocation to NDHM (₹341.02 crores) under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is 143% more than the 2022-23 Revised Estimates of ₹140 crores. This aligns with the budgetary allocation to NDHM in 2022-2023, with a massive 166.6% increase from 2021-2022 numbers. The allocation to the NDHM has been consistently increasing since 2020-2021, with projects like the United Health Interface (UHI) aiming to unleash a digital health tech revolution in India. However, there are some pressing concerns about these interventions that have yet to be satisfactorily addressed.
Figure : Total budget allocation for National Health Mission (NHM)
Bills and Legislations Introduced
Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2023
The Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2023 (‘Amendment Bill’) incorporates 8 amendments to the Competition Act, 2002- including an increase in the number of entities that can be considered to be a part of anti-competitive agreements, the introduction of a deal-value threshold for mergers and acquisitions, and the modification of ‘turnover’ to mean global turnover. The Amendment Bill offers a framework for settlement and a commitment to speedy resolution of investigations into anti-competitive agreements and abuse of dominant position. Additionally, the Amendment Bill decriminalises several violations under the Competition Act, 2002, by substituting civil penalties for the imposition of fines.
Throughout the Budget Session, we tracked the significant answers to parliamentary questions placed in both the Houses by various members. A few key responses received were:
- On Aarogya Setu: The MeitY stated that the contact tracing feature of the Aarogya Setu mobile application had been discontinued and the collected data had been deleted in accordance with the Aarogya Setu Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol, 2020. However, details on when this data was deleted - and whether copies of the distributed copies were deleted as well - were not provided. (Link)
- On MGNREGA: The Ministry of Rural Development, in two answers, stated that worksite supervisors are responsible for mandatorily capturing the attendance and geo-tagged photos of MGNREGA workers through the National Mobile Monitoring System (‘NMMS’) app. At the same time, another response claimed that no reports of the indefinite strike held by MGNREGA workers at Jantar Mantar in Delhi - regarding both the mandatory attendance and reduced government benefits due to budget cuts - had reached the Ministry. In another response, the Ministry states that the Aadhar Based Payment System would be made mandatory post March 31, 2023 for the payment of wages to ensure timely wage payments to MGNREGA beneficiaries. (Link, Link, Link)
- On fake online information: The MeitY, in response to claims about instances of fake information being busted on the internet, said that the PIB Fact Check Unit had taken down 1160 cases of fake news. In a similar question raised, the MIB claims that PIB officers would constitute the Fact Check Unit and no separate budget has been allocated for this purpose. With the recent notification of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023 (“IT Amendment Rules, 2023”), the PIB is no longer explicitly supposed to constitute the Fact Check Unit - but these fact-checking powers have attracted rampant criticism citing executive overreach. (Link)
- On cyber attacks on the government institutions: The MeitY presented before the Lok Sabha details of cyber attacks on government agencies, institutions and undertakings between 2014 and 2022, as provided by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (‘CERT-In’). What was alarming was that in the absence of a data protection law, there has been a significant jump in the number of attacks from 2014 to 2022. (Link).
- On blocking websites, accounts and social media content: When asked about the status of blocking websites and the constitutionality of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, the MeitY replied that 228 websites were blocked in 2022 and they had recourse by way of approaching the courts. As for the constitutionality and Rule 16 of the Information Technology Rules, 2009 being ultra vires Section 69A of the IT Act, they placed reliance on Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India [(2015) 5 SCC 1] to argue that both provisions were deemed constitutionally valid. As for blocking accounts and social media content, in another answer, the MeitY stated that 471 accounts were blocked in 2014, the number had gone up to 974 (till March 10, 2023) and 4999 YouTube accounts were blocked till date. They also stated that a Review Committee has been set up, which would meet every two months, and that to date it has not set aside any orders. However, the arbitrary blocking of social media accounts during internet shutdowns has especially been on the rise in 2023. (Link, Link)
- On detection and regulation of fake news: In light of the notification of the IT Amendment Rules, 2023 in relation to online gaming and fact checking, the MIB was asked about whether resorting to the PIB Fact Check Unit amounts to government censorship. The answer was in the negative and that it had resolved 37000 queries since 2019. With respect to social media, the MeitY provided the numbers on ‘fake news on social media’, which have been taken down between 2019 and 2022. In the notification of the IT Amendment Rules, 2023, on April 06, 2023, however, “fake”, “false” or “misleading” content has yet to be defined. (Link, Link)
The length of this post may misrepresent the quantity of legislative and parliamentary business conducted by the two Houses of Parliament in this Budget Session. With the 17th Lok Sabha set to be the shortest in 71 years, the undemocratic nature of Parliamentary process must be noted instead - especially amidst the lack of deliberation and discussion being afforded even to the passing of Bills. Even the 2023-2024 Budget was passed with minimal deliberation. Moreover, parliamentary debate remained unproductive, with many disruptions in the form of protests on contemporary issues by the Opposition and Treasury benches going unheard and unaddressed. It appears, as Parliament is prorogued until the Monsoon Session in July, that the very character of parliamentary conduct and discourse has been rendered dysfunctional in the country.
- IFF’s Legislative Brief on Digital Rights for the Budget Session, 2023. (link)
- The Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2023, as passed by the Lok Sabha on March 29, 2023. (link)
- Our previous blogpost analysing the Budget 2023-2024. (link)
- IFF’s prior legislative briefs on digital rights. (link)