On November 18, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology released the Draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022, for public suggestions and comments. But the cumbersome and restrictive process of submitting feedback risks alienating citizens and deterring meaningful engagement in policy making, especially on such a crucial matter.

First, the ministry is only accepting responses through the MyGov.in platform. To submit their comments, an individual has to create an account on the platform, which includes mandatory email and mobile number verification as well as their date of birth. Even requests under the right to information law do not require individuals to share their date of birth and mobile number.

A digital-only feedback process prevents individuals without access to internet and electronic devices from taking part in policymaking. This is in stark contrast with the previous instances of public consultations by the information technology ministry, which allowed for comments to be submitted by post.

Second, the mode of providing feedback on the online portal is also restrictive. It only allows for comments to be submitted by selecting a particular chapter and provision, for which feedback is being provided. This leaves out the scope to provide comments on matters that are not covered in the draft. The portal also restricts each response to 2,500 characters, which would allow for 350-600 words.

Third, the ministry has only released the English text of the bill, excluding a large portion of the population from participating in the consultation.

Finally, and most importantly, the ministry has included an odd disclaimer on the consultation portal: “No public disclosure of the submissions will be made.” This statement disregards the transparent and deliberative nature of effective public consultations and could erode public trust in feedback processes.

It overlooks the 2014 Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy, which states that a summary of all comments received must be uploaded in the public domain. This also goes against the definition of “public information” under the Right to Information Act, 2005, which aptly covers such records. Previously, the Central Information Commission has ordered the information technology ministry to respond to requests for such information, which it initially denied.

There has been a general increase in draft bills being put out for public consultation. Between 2014 to 2020, India witnessed a 506% increase in public consultations across government departments and ministries. This contributes to open and transparent policy making that improves compliance and reduces enforcement costs.

Since 2017, the information and technology ministry has also conducted multiple public consultations and stakeholder meetings to ensure an inclusive and participatory form of policymaking.

The current bill seeks to protect the rights of individuals and their personal data and regulate the duties and obligations of businesses that process such data. The proposed legislation is the fourth iteration and the result of a five-year long process following the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in KS Puttaswamy vs Union of India, which recognised privacy as a fundamental right.

For the current draft too, the ministry has followed the 2014 Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy guidelines in providing a 30-day feedback period and an explanatory note to the bill. But the numerous hurdles can deter citizens from engaging with the government, defeating the purpose of inclusive policy making.

A Unicef study has shown that young people who engaged with one act of online civic engagement are almost twice as likely to vote as opposed to those who did not engage online. With the increase in the number of users coming online since the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be detrimental for a democratic nation to take measures that reduce citizen engagement.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has on occasion advocated the need for developing and implementing digital strategies to bridge the gap between governments and citizens. They provide tool kits, case studies and recommendations for using technology not just as a strategic driver to improve public sector efficiency, but also to support the effectiveness of policies to create more transparent, innovative, participatory and trustworthy governments.

If the information technology ministry truly wants to conduct an effective and inclusive consultation process for this draft bill, it needs to make provisions for a free-form feedback process.

It can begin with allowing citizens to send their feedback by post, not restricting them to a chapter-wise segregation, making the feedback available in official languages of the states and publishing a synthesis of the feedback received by the ministry at the end of the consultation period.

Given the popular nature of this bill, there may be concerns on the government’s capacity to analyse the volume of feedback points coming in. However, in addressing this concern, the government should not be taking steps that hinder a citizen’s access to participate in public consultations, but rather focus on building the state’s capacity for feedback analysis.

January 2 is now the last date to submit feedback on the draft bill after an extension was granted.

Aditya Tannu is a Consultation Fellow and Shonottra Kumar is a Senior Associate for Outreach and Communications at Civis.vote, a civic-tech non profit platform that works to build effective dialogue between governments and citizens on draft laws and policies, using technology to bridge the gap between the two.