The Right to Set Things Right

A culture of tentacular control over all and sundry is making matters worse. Not surprisingly, there is a growing and pervasive sense of alienation in the country against the political class

Every Saturday, for years now, the country has to endure an overdose of press conferences organized by the diverse political parties. This practice started by the opposition has been happily emulated by basically all political parties. The weekly scene of apparatchiks of the various political parties dutifully huddling together and listening to the monologue and pontifications of their leaders in reaction to political and other developments week in week out is quite flabbergasting. Their take on topical issues and criticisms are in a reactive mode to events and government actions rather than a constructive engagement with government geared to assure a better and more inclusive country for all. After years of enacting this tiresome Saturday ritual every week, it has now become part of a tedious routine. It presumably also comforts all the leaders and party members involved that, as elected representatives of the people, they are doing a wonderful job and fully earning their keep.

The government in power has also merrily joined in this burlesque vaudeville fielding its own spin doctor to provide its own weekly spin on government actions and topical issues to counter the shenanigans of the various opposition parties. The modus operandi is identical. The government spokesman also embarks on a lengthy monologue surrounded by dutifully acquiescing party apparatchiks. This endless weekly enactment begs so many questions. Do these tiresome press conferences serve any useful purpose for people and country? Do they in any way change the many contested government policies for the benefit of the people? The growing futility of the weekly press conferences is dawning upon everyone except on the political class who seems to know no better. The upshot is that the weekly press conferences firmly entrench divisive polarization of opinion and narrow politicking in the country.

In fact the news mill keeps spinning throughout the week with almost daily question and answer exchanges between the Prime Minister and the press after each function he attends in the week. The replies elicited feed and fuel headlines and extensive press comment. They are also inordinately aired on national TV. No wonder the media is having a field day. It is therefore not surprising that endless politicking takes precedence over the plethora of burning issues afflicting the country. The real problems facing the country are blithely swept under the carpet causing tremendous prejudice to the people and their well being. No amount of tom-tomming about the country’s African or world ranking on criteria such as transparency or good governance in the teeth of the ground evidence to the contrary can change the pervasive perception that the people have on these key benchmarks in the country and the political class.

Credibility

The credibility of the whole political class is already seriously dented in the eyes of the people. The continued hold of defeated leaders over the opposition parties and the dynastic change at the head of government without the legitimacy of a plebiscite at the polls has taken its toll. The opposition parties are incapable of mustering support for diverse protest marches against, for example, the recent unjustified rise in fuel prices.

There are so many problems in the country which need to be urgently addressed such as inequality, the erosion of the standard of living, the plummeting standards of government administration due to unending nepotism and jobs for the coterie irrespective of which government is in place, inclusive growth, harnessing the skills and talent of the qualified young for the benefit of the country, etc. Yet there are hardly any constructive initiatives by the political class to set things right. On the contrary, a culture of tentacular control over all and sundry is making matters worse. Not surprisingly, there is a growing and pervasive sense of alienation in the country against the political class. The nation is rearing to put an end to a mode of governance and standard of political ethics which is more and more decried by people.

A democracy can only thrive if its citizens remain vigilant and ready to unswervingly exercise their right to set things right whenever the country and the nation require it.

The unalienable right to privacy

A democracy is vibrant and alive when its citizens are prepared to stand up and fight against any encroachment upon their fundamental and unalienable rights. It is this basic democratic instinct which led retired Indian judge K.S. Puttaswamy and a lawyer Parvesh Khanna to file a petition in the Supreme Court in 2012 challenging the constitutionality of the Indian biometric identity scheme, Aadhaar, on the grounds that it violates the right to privacy. The Aadhaar biometric identity scheme provides a unique 12-digit identification number to every Indian citizen enrolling to join the scheme. While it was initially a voluntary scheme which enabled people to obtain access to certain government benefits, their bank accounts or to pay taxes, it is becoming increasingly compulsory for a widening range of heterogeneous requirements.

The Aadhaar card contains individual data including personal and biometric details. It is the world’s largest biometric ID system with over 1.25 billion Indians enrolled. Such an enormous data bank has raised legitimate apprehensions and questions about security, misuse, vulnerability to hacking and leaks as well as risks to privacy. Wikileaks has also raised various scares of access by foreign organizations. A unique identification number used for a multiplicity of uses exposes the scheme to data mining and misuse of every kind if it is not encrypted and safeguarded with foolproof security firewalls.

In a digital age, the key issues are inter alia: What use is being made of biometric data? Is there a valid reason to store the data? Is the biometric data encrypted, safely stored and fully secured against all risks? There is also a need to strike the right balance and demarcation line between the advantages of digital and smart technology on the one hand and the right to privacy and the imperative of rigorously protecting private data with foolproof security against misuse or other latent risks of leaks and hacking, on the other hand.

Landmark ruling

In a landmark ruling last week, a nine-judge bench of the Indian Supreme Court unanimously declared that ‘The right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.’ The judgment also rules that the right to privacy is a fundamental inalienable right. It protects the inner sphere of the individual from interference from both State, and non-State actors and allows the individuals to make autonomous life choices.

India, the largest world democracy thus joins the United States, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom in recognizing that there is such a right.

Learned legal pathways

The judgment which covers 547 pages includes the reasons underpinning the judges’ ruling as well as the opinions of six judges. It clarifies and provides a legal framework for privacy protection in India. The judgment may also have a bearing on broader civil rights issues such as LGBT rights in India. The Supreme Court is now expected to examine Aadhaar from the standpoint of their ruling and those of critics who oppose it on the grounds that it is intrusive.

The lead judgment calls for the government to create a data protection regime to protect the privacy of the individual. It also recommends a robust regime which balances individual interests and legitimate concerns of the State.

Any motivated judgment by a nine-judge bench of the Indian Supreme Court obviously provides learned legal pathways for the future on a fundamental aspect of personal liberties in a rapidly evolving digital age. It also provides incisive pointers and guidance on our own debate regarding the use and storage of biometric data and the imperative of implementing sound and reliable security bulwarks to rigorously safeguard and protect them.

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