1. Is the government empowered to intercept communication between two individuals? Answer: Yes. The Central and the State government can intercept communication. Letters, telephone (mobiles and landlines) and internet communication (e mails, chats etc.) can be intercepted by the government. Interception of:
2. Under what circumstances can the government intercept communication? Answer: The circumstances under which communication can be intercepted by the government are:
3. Are there any safeguards that have been built into the interception process? Answer: The Supreme Court in the case of PUCL Vs Union of India observed that the right to have telephone conservation in the privacy of one’s home or office is part of the Right to Life and Personal Liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution, which cannot be curtailed except according to the procedure established by law. Elaborating the scope of Section 5 (2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1882 the Court clarified that this section does not confer unguided and unbridled power on investigating agencies to invade a person’s privacy. The court laid down the following safeguards: a. Tapping of telephones is prohibited without an authorizing order from the Home Secretary, Government of India or the Home Secretary of the concerned State Government b. The order, unless it is renewed shall cease to have authority at the end of two months from the date of issue. Though the order may be renewed, it cannot remain in operation beyond six months. c. Telephone tapping or interception of communications must be limited to the address (es) specified in the order or to address (es) likely to be used by a person specified in the order. d. All copies of the intercepted material must be destroyed as soon as their retention is not necessary under the terms of Section 5 (2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1882. e. In an urgent case, this power may be delegated to an officer of the Home Department, Government of India or the Home Department of the State government, who is not below the rank of Joint Secretary. Copy of this order should be sent to the concerned Review Committee within one week of passing of the order. f. This Review Committee shall consist of the Cabinet Secretary, Law Secretary and the Secretary Telecommunications at the Central Government. At the state level, the Committee shall comprise of Chief Secretary, Law Secretary and another member (other than the Home Secretary) appointed by the State Government. The Committee shall on its own, within two months of the passing of an order under Section 5 (2) investigate whether its passing is relevant. If an order is in existence, the Committee should find out whether there has been a contravention of the provisions of Section 5 (2). If the Review Committee on investigation concludes that provisions of Section 5 (2) have been contravened, it shall direct destruction of the copies of the intercepted material. In pursuance of the Supreme Court judgement the Indian Telegraph (First Amendment) Rules, 1999 were framed and notified on 16.02.1999. A similar notification titled, the Information Technology (Procedures and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information Rules, 2009 were notified on October 27, 2009. [see page 18] 4. Are there any other known cases of telephone tapping of politicians? Answer: In 2005, Shri Amar Singh alleged that his telephones were tapped by private individuals. The case against them is currently pending in the Tis Hazari court in Delhi. 5. Are there any statistics about the number of telephones being tapped by the government? Answer: Currently no such statistics are publicly available. In a similar context, in the UK (where the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 governs this particular subject) a Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner states that a total of 5344 warrants were issued for interception of communication in 2008.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.