The Centre sold India’s entire vehicle registration database to a private company in 2014 despite government officials flagging concerns of the data being sold cheap, The Wire reported on Friday, citing documents obtained through Right to Information Act queries.

In a September 2014 deal, an automobile technology solutions company called Fast Lane Automotive Private Limited signed a contract with the Union transport ministry for bulk data sharing. Notably, the deal was signed without conducting an auction for finding the market price of the data, to which Fast Lane had exclusive access, according to the report.

Over the next several months, the deal faced several objections from government officials over pricing of the data, privacy issues and granting a grace period on the contract to Fast Lane.

However, it was not until February 2016 that that the transport ministry decided to cut off the supply of data to Fast Lane. Besides this, Fast Lane still owns the data as Union Transport minister Nitin Gadkari told the Lok Sabha in February 2021 that the government has not considered asking private firms to delete the data shared with them.

Fast Lane made a fortune

The database did not contain personal details of the vehicle owners but it provided business opportunities and insights for banks, financial companies, automobile manufacturers, insurance companies and marketing companies, according to The Wire.

Significantly, in the absence of an auction for the data, there were no takers for it other than Fast Lane. The company combined the data with information from other data sets to offer technological solutions based on Indian vehicle registration data in the global market.

Within a year of accessing the data, Fast Lane’s turnover rose 163 times – up from Rs 2.25 lakh in financial year 2014-2015 to Rs 3.7 crore in financial year 2015-16, the digital news portal reported.

Under the deal, Fast Lane received data for 4.9 crore vehicles, whose details were digitised at a price of Rs 1 crore, according to data accessed by The Wire. This suggests that the government sold each vehicle’s detail at 20 paise. The price was questioned by the finance wing of the transport ministry but was ignored.

Timeline of events

April 2014: On April 25, 2014, the transport ministry under the then Manmohan Singh government approved a scheme for sharing data in the National Register with law enforcement agencies and insurance companies.

Fast Lane, a company with a UK-based parent firm proposed a deal to the government to buy the vehicle data of the entire country. The agreement it proposed was the same as the one it had earlier signed with the United Kingdom government.

Soon after, the Narendra Modi government came to power and on June 20, 2014, the ministry proposed to share vehicle registration details and driver licence data.

September 2014: After the ministry received an application from Fast Lane in August 2014, the National Informatics Centre raised objections to the deal, citing privacy concerns. However, the transport ministry chose to sideline NIC’s objections pointing out that it was “just an intermediary” to the data.

On September 16, 2014, the bulk data sharing contract was signed between the ministry and Fast Lane.

April 2015: On April 20, 2015, Fast Lane wrote to the transport ministry asking it to postpone the commencement of the one-year contract to May 1, 2015 from from September 16, 2014. Fast Lane made the request, suggesting that it had not been able to leverage the data for commercial use because of gaps in data.

In August 2015, the National Informatics Centre denied any fault in data sharing and objected against grant of any grace period to Fast Lane. A month later, the file was sent to the finance wing for finalising a formula for grace period. This was the first occasion that the finance wing received the file and they too, rejected the grace period request. The finance wing also raised questions on pricing of the data, under the deal.

However, despite all these objections, the ministry granted the company a grace period till November 30, 2015, for a contract that expired on September 18, 2015.

February 2016: The ministry finally paused bulk data supply to Fast Lane following the National Informatics Centre’s opinion that bulk data should not be shared with private firms due to privacy and security concerns. However, it was not until 2018 that the contract was officially terminated and the transport ministry decided to invite other buyers.

March 2019: Following a meeting to finalise a Bulk Data Sharing policy, the government launched it on March 18, 2019. They set the price of data at Rs 3 crore, as against the Rs 1 crore price that was offered to Fast Lane in 2014.

June 2020: The government eventually rescinded the Bulk Data Sharing policy over “privacy concerns”.