Budget Session 2024: A Digital Rights Review

Both houses of the Parliament were adjourned on February 10 after an 9-day run during which they discussed and passed the Union Interim Budget, passed bills, and answered questions raised by the opposition. In this post, we see how this parliamentary session fared on the digital rights front.

12 February, 2024
12 min read

tl;dr

Both houses of the Parliament were adjourned sine die on February 10, 2024, concluding the 2024 Budget Session one day after the scheduled end date of February 09, and the last parliamentary session for the 17th Lok Sabha. During this Session, 10 new bills were introduced for passing, of which 12 were passed by both houses, 1 pending passage in the Rajya Sabha, with a total of 24 bills pending after the conclusion of the session. The Union Interim Budget for 2024-25 was presented and passed. We see increased budgetary allocations in the budget for MeitY, MHA, MIB and DoT as compared to the 2023-2024 Budget, which is a good starting point for building and implementing robust digital systems. Discussions on the floor of the parliament spanned several issues, including those relevant to digital rights and freedoms.

Background

The 15th Parliamentary Session of the 17th Lok Sabha was adjourned sine die on February 10, 2024, concluding one day after the scheduled end date of February 09. This marks the last parliamentary sitting for the 17th Lok Sabha, as we prepare to elect a new government in the upcoming general elections. In the session, Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Interim Budget for the Financial Year (“FY”) 2024-2025, which was passed in both houses. The budget is an interim allocation of funds until India forms a new union government in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, post which a full budget will be placed in both houses for deliberation again in July 2024. A cumulative sum of ₹1,43,337.88 Cr has been allotted to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). See our detailed analysis of the budget for these ministries in this blogpost.

Both houses introduced 10 bills, passed 12 and withdrew none. The bills passed in both houses and now awaiting presidential assent include the Finance Bill, 2024 which gives effect to tax proposals of the central government for the year 2024-25 and 5 Appropriation Bills. The other bills passed are the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution), Amendment Bill, 2024, Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024, Jammu and Kashmir Local Bodies Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2024, Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2024, Constitution (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) Orders (Amendment) Bill, 2024, Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Castes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023; Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023. Read more about this session’s legislative business here.

The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha observed productivity rates of 148% and 137% respectively. However, a majority of their time (44-47%) was spent discussing non-legislative business, and a fraction of time (8-9%) actually went into discussing and answering questions. While the Union Interim Budget was passed after 7 hours 6 minutes of discussion in the Lok Sabha and 6 hours 37 minutes discussion in the Rajya Sabha, both houses spent between 3-5 hours discussing agenda item 'Historic construction of Shree Ram Temple and Pran Pratishta' on the final day of the Parliament. These statistics are available here and here.

Quick overview: Union Interim Budget 2024-25

Union Interim Budget for FY 2024-25 has cumulatively allotted ₹1,43,337.88 Cr to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). A glance at Ministry-wise Budget Estimates (“BE”) and Revised Estimates (“RE”) shows us that for the MeitY, allocation in BE 2024-2025 (₹21,385.15 Cr) saw an increase of 48.28% as compared to the RE of 2023-24 (₹14,421.25 Cr); for the MHA, allocation in BE 2024-2025 (₹5733.51 crores) saw an increase of 11.97% as compared to the RE of 2023-24 (₹5120.78 Cr), for the MIB, allocation in BE 2024-2025 (₹4342.55 Cr) saw a decrease of 2.41% as compared to the RE of 2023-24 (₹4449.76 Cr), for the DoT, allocation in BE 2024-2025 (₹1,11,876.67 Cr) saw an increase of 13.74% as compared to the RE of 2023-24 (₹98,359.41 Cr).

An enormous 17.15% increase in total planned capital expenditure of DoT, MeitY, MHA, and MIB (₹1,43,337.88 Cr) over the RE of 2023-24 (₹1,22,351.2 Cr) can be observed, stemming largely from a 48.28% increase in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). The increment can be attributed to MeitY’s capital allocation towards the Modified Programme for Development of Semiconductors and Display Manufacturing Ecosystem in India, which saw a whopping 359.1% increase as compared to 2023-24.

Ministry-wise overview

  1. MeitY: The total budgetary allocation for MeitY in the Budget for 2024-2025 is ₹21385.2 Cr, which is a 29.2% increase from the previous financial year’s budget. The increase is even higher when compared to the RE of 2023-2024, i.e., a year-on-year change of 48.28%. This is in contrast to the budgetary trends we witnessed in 2021, 2022 and 2023, where there was underutilisation of the budget. 

Item (Rs. cr)

Actual 2022-23

Budget 2023-24

Revised 2023-24

Budget 2024-25

Establishment Expenditure of the Centre

1815.9

2040.76

2074.5

2352.64

PLI for Large Scale Electronics and IT Hardware

1654.96

...

...

...

Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA)

250.0

...

...

...

Promotion of Digital payment

1989.6

1500.0

584.0

...

DIGITAL INDIA Program

5518.1

4795.2

4428.0

4215.0

Central Sector Schemes/ Projects

5531.09

12440.28

10491.25

17319.51

Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C- DAC)

250

270

270

270

Society for Applied Microwave Electronics Engineering and Research (SAMEER)

131.39

160

150

160

Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI)

1219.7

940.0

800.0

600.0

Other Autonomous Bodies

1867.21

2057

1842.5

1700

Other Central Sector Expenditure

852.3

2068.0

1855.5

1713.0

Grand Total

8199.3

16549.0

14421.3

21385.2

  1. DoT: In 2024-25, the Department (which operates under the Ministry of Communications) has been allocated a whopping ₹111876.6 Cr, which is 14.65% increase over the budget allocated in 2023-24 (₹97579.05 Cr) and 13.74% over the RE for 2023-24 (₹98359.41 Cr). Notably, no funds have been allocated for the defence spectrum, for which DoT estimated a large amount of ₹2285.32 Cr last year, but utilised only 13.8% of it (₹315.55 Cr).

Item (Rs. cr)

Actual 2022-2023

Budget 2023-2024

Revised 2023-2024

Budget 2024-2025

Establishment Expenditure of the Centre

2111.7

2491.53

2622.86

2459.92

Helicopter Services

105.61

126

103

115

Disaster Management

186.61

393.65

326.41

288.63

Central Sector Schemes/Projects

1330.5

1504.34

1667.58

1564.68

Other Central Sector Expenditure

623.82

1728.13

761.75

1610.03

Other Grants/ Loans/ Transfers

70.6

67.31

66.3

88.01

Grand Total

4235.69

5901.31

5120.78

5733.51

  1. MIB: The total budgetary allocation for MIB in 2024-25 is ₹4342.55 Cr, which is a 7.45% decrease from the 2023-2024 Budget. This cut comes after MIB seemingly was able to utilise a higher budget allocation last year, which seems incongruent. The allocation for Central Sector Schemes/Projects under MIB has plateaued as compared to the BE 2023-2024.

Item (Rs. crore)

Actual 2022-23

Budget 2023-24

Revised 2023-24

Budget 2024-25

Total Establishment Expenditure

547.95

555.88

816.62

589.41

Total-Central Sector Schemes/ Projects

596.66

1105

1027.28

1015

Total- Support to Autonomous Bodies

2875.57

3031.12

2848.1

2738.14

Grand Total

4020.18

4692

4692

4342.55

  1. MHA: The total budgetary allocation for MHA is 2.84% lower than what was allocated in the BE for the FY 2023-24. The allocation in the budget estimates, net of receipts and recoveries, for MHA is ₹5733.51 Cr. Although there is a 11.97% increase over the 2023-24 RE that was pegged at ₹5120.78 Cr, the allocation is still 13.22% lower than what was made in 2023-24. The allocation for planned capital expenditure has marginally dipped as compared to both the 2023-2024 BE ( by 1.27%) and RE (by 6.21%), which is disappointing.

Item (Rs. crore)

Actual 2022-2023

Budget 2023-2024

Revised 2023-2024

Budget 2024-2025

Establishment Expenditure of the Centre

16601.82

22042.91

18462.35

18656.22

Universal Services Obligation Fund

53500.00

10400.00

2000.00

2000.00

Total - Defence Spectrum

1367.66

2158.00

2158.00

--

Total - DoT Projects

315.55

2285.32

926.53

2314.43

Total - Other Central Sector Expenditure

47175.51

60692.82

73218.79

88906.02

Grand Total

118960.54

97579.05

98359.41

111876.67

Questions, answers, and discussions

Digi Yatra Implementation and data security

On February 05, Niranjan Reddy asked the Ministry of Civil Aviation in the Rajya Sabha for insights on passenger data collection via Digi Yatra, measures taken to prevent unauthorised access/misuse, and whether passengers have visibility and control over their data, incl right to access, rectify & delete data, as well as the Ministry’s plans to place Digi Yatra under govt oversight for enhanced security and transparency. The Minister of State answered that the DigiYatra Central Ecosystem prioritises privacy by design and default and all personal passenger data is stored locally in the passenger’s smartphone wallet itself. He added that data is shared with the origin airport for ID validation and purged within 24 hrs post-flight departure, and that the government ensures data security and process transparency in Digi Yatra by maintaining passenger data locally only and purging it from the central system. 

However, this does not solve a central issue with DigiYatra, which lacks transparency in its data flow and sharing practices, with vague privacy policy provisions and discrepancies in officials' statements. Neither its nodal authority nor auditing body, which is the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (“CERT-in”)  falls under the RTI Act. Read IFF’s detailed analysis on Digi Yatra here.

Regulation of deepfakes

On February 05, Parliamentarian Harbhajan Singh asked MeitY if it is cognizant of the risks associated with disruptive technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) and deepfakes, and their plans to enact regulations in these domains. Minister of State replied that the government’s internet policies prioritise an open, safe and accountable online space for all “Digital Nagriks”, and that they plan to leverage the potential of AI for innovation across sectors while being mindful of its risks, especially in the case of deepfakes. 

He stated that as for regulation the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“IT Rules, 2021”) obligate intermediaries to promptly address misinformation, which includes deepfakes. Under these Rules certain Grievance Appellate Committees are set up to ensure a user-friendly redressal, and the Ministry adopts a zero-tolerance stance on deepfakes which mandates platforms to align their terms of use and swiftly remove prohibited content. He added that recent advisories of the Ministry emphasise compliance with IT Rules, 2021 for intermediaries, while users are being informed about content guidelines and potential legal consequences. The National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal and helpline are also available for grievance redress. 

As deepfakes took centre stage in 2023, MeitY decided to tackle the issue head-on. However, what ensued was several conflicting statements from MeitY and rushed interventions without deeply understanding or consulting over the issues, which is not the best-suited response to systemic issues like deepfakes. Read IFF’s analysis on this issue here. Further, Grievance Appellate Committees are not the solution to the problem – they worryingly make the government an arbiter of permissible speech on the internet and incentivise social media platforms and intermediaries to suppress any speech unpalatable to the government. Read more of IFF’s work on GACs under the IT Rules, 2021 here.

Internet and child mental health

On February 02, in Lok Sabha, Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor asked the Ministry of Women and Child Development about their awareness of surveys done on the mental health concerns prevalent among internet-using children, and steps taken to address the issue, especially by the Kerala government where the rates are worryingly high. Minister of State answered that the government does not know of the survey, but studies have been done by the National Commission For Protection of Child Rights on the effects of mobile phone and internet usage on school children which suggest similar trends. She added that the government addresses mental health burden in children through the National Mental Health Programme and Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram, focused on holistic adolescent development with mental health as a key area. This is supported by the Ayushman Bharat School Health and Wellness Programme and a National Tele Mental Health Programme with 34 states/UTs already offering tele-mental health services, handling over 6,28,000 calls.

Rural connectivity and digital panchayats

On February 06, in Lok Sabha,Parliament Damore Guman asked the Ministry of Panchayati Raj about their plans for technological advancements in Panchayati Raj Institutions (“PRI”), status of FTTH internet connectivity in PRIs in Madhya Pradesh, how long until remaining Gram Panchayats have internet access, and the Ministry’s efforts to raise digital literacy among newly elected representatives. Minister of State replied that eGramSwaraj app enhances transparency in Panchayat governance, with 2.52L PRIs uploading development plans and 2.41L completing online transactions for grants. AuditOnline ensures accountable finances, with 2.49L audit plans created. He added that BharatNet aims to connect all PRIs with broadband and 2,14,300 are presently service-ready. A ‘Model Panchayat Citizens Charter’ ensures timely services for citizens, and over 2.32L Gram Panchayats have conducted Gram Sabha to facilitate this. On digital literacy efforts, he stated that the revamped Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan empowers Panchayats through technical training for Elected Representatives, focusing on governance capabilities and SDG localisation at grassroots level. 

Regulatory scope of DPDPA

On February 07, in Lok Sabha, Parliamentarian Tenkasi asked MeitY about the key objectives of Digital Personal Data Protection (“DPDP”) Act 2023, its impact on personal data processing in India, and its scope to advance India's AI adoption while safeguarding personal data. Further, he asked how the government is ensuring companies comply with redressal mechanisms and penalties under the Act, what steps are being taken to educate citizens about their statutory rights and what measures are in place to ensure compliance by data fiduciaries. Minister of State answered that the DPDP Act focuses solely on protection of personal data & establishes rights and duties of Data Principals and obligations of Data Fiduciaries – including safeguarding personal data against breaches & fostering responsible data processing practices. He added that the Act establishes a Data Protection Board to penalise non-compliance, ensuring accountability and imposing fines on processors violating data protection standards and that a transition period of 6-12 mos will be provided for them to adapt and comply to the new regime. 

The DPDP Act in its current form is flawed on many aspects – it makes personal data vulnerable to online scraping, has weak notice requirements, gives sweeping exemptions to govt and private actors in unclear circumstances, imposes penalties on data principals, and so on. Further, the public consultation process for the current version is flawed, as it was tabled and passed in the parliament without specific consultations and though its previous version was open for feedback from the public, the suggestions were not publicly displayed, neither were they incorporated, at least not in a transparent manner. IFF has done a deeper analysis on the Act, which can be accessed here.

Voter card linking with Aadhaar

On February 09, several Lok Sabha members asked the Ministry of Law and Justice about the number of Voter IDs linked with Aadhaar since the Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 2021 and how consent is being obtained for the same. They also inquired about how a voter’s Aadhaar details will be deleted upon withdrawal of consent and if the names of voters not linked with Aadhaar will be removed from voter lists. Further, they asked about the measures put in place to safeguard the voter database from misuse. Minister of State replied saying that the Election Commission of India (“ECI”) has previously clarified that the Representation of the People Act, 1950, as amended by the Election Laws Act, 2021, permits Electoral Registration Officers to request Aadhaar numbers from electors voluntarily for identity verification. He added that starting August 01, 2022, a voluntary Aadhaar collection program has been initiated nationwide but linking of Aadhaar with Election Photo Identity Cards has not commenced yet. For now, submitting Aadhaar with Voter ID is optional, with consent obtained via Form 6B. Currently there are no provisions for deleting Aadhaar details if consent is withdrawn. The ECI oversees electoral roll preparation and ensures data security through multi-layered encryption.

One Nation, One Student ID

On February 05, Parliamentarians asked the Education Ministry for clarity on the “One Nation, One Student ID” initiative, including the objectives of the initiative, measures to ensure student data confidentiality, and guidelines to prevent data breaches. Minister of State for Education replied that under the framework, a ‘registry framework’ tracks students’ academic journeys, facilitates credit transfers, and aligns programs with skill components. Stringent data security measures under MeitY’s guidelines will ensure confidentiality and prevent data breaches. IFF has previously flagged the framework for the privacy concerns it raises, which persist despite the Minister’s assurances. Read our analysis here.

There were other discussions that we tracked live, including on data collection through Aarogya Setu, linking of Aadhaar with health schemes, leaks of Aadhaar data in recent times, blocking of content on social media sites (here, here), regulation of pirated content, status and mechanisms under the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, cybercrimes and fraud (here, here), building capacity and upskilling for Digital Public Infrastructure roll-out, and the impact of AI on the labour market.

Conclusion

The Budget Session gave us one notable high, which is a marked increase in Ministerial budgets, but other than that sustained trends from last year – high projected estimates but underutilisation of funds. In light of the increasing digitisation across sectors and the increasing demand for improved digital literacy as well as access to digital services, we hope that the fund allocation in these concerned sectors continue to witness a positive trend. In terms of productivity, though both houses sat for an extra day, the discussions focused on political agenda items since this would be the last parliamentary sitting for the 17th Lok Sabha, and the last for the incumbent government before we break for elections in April-May 2024. Some pertinent questions were asked by opposition members which touched upon digital rights and freedoms, but we noted that the responses were not adequate, and data privacy concerns for many issues remain unaddressed. We remain optimistic that the upcoming union government will give these issues their deserved attention and careful consideration.

This post has been drafted with assistance from Vinamra Harkar, Policy Intern, Internet Freedom Foundation.

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