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Post Office Bill, 2023 UPSC NOTE

 Post Office Bill, 2023

  • On December 18, the Parliament passed the Post Office Bill, 2023.

  •  This bill seeks to replace the colonial-era Indian Post Office Act, 1898

  • According to the government, the legislation is an attempt to ensure the effective functioning of the Postal Department as a messenger service and as a provider of banking facilities.

What are the key features of the Bill?

  • The Post Office Bill, 2023 allows the interception of articles transmitted via post on grounds such as the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, emergency

public safety, or contravention of the provisions of the Bill or any other laws. 

  • The officer-in- charge appointed by the Union government is empowered to ‘intercept, open or detain’ any postal article on the aforementioned grounds

  • Such an item can also be disposed of by the government in a manner it deems appropriate.

  • The Union government by notification can also empower any officer of the Post Office to deliver a postal article suspected of containing any prohibited item to the customs authority or any other specified authority.

  • The Bill exempts the Post Office from incurring any liability pertaining to its services. 

  • It specifically stipulates that no officer shall incur any liability unless the officer has acted fraudulently, or wilfully caused any loss, delay, or mis-delivery of service. 

  • There are also no offences and penalties specified under the Bill except one: amounts not paid by a user will be recoverable as arrears of land revenue

  • The 1898 Act contained offences such as theft, misappropriation, or destruction of postal articles which are punishable with imprisonment up to seven years and a fine. 

  • However, such offences and penalties were subsequently removed by the Jan Vishwas (Amendment of Provisions) Act, 2023.

What were the concerns raised?

  • The Indian National Congress said that the Bill violates the fundamental right to privacy

  • P. Wilson of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) underscored that the Bill, in the absence of guidelines, encourages state surveillance and violates Articles 14, 19(1)(a), and Article 21 of the Constitution. 

  • He also flagged how a post officer can be empowered to exercise search and seizure powers. “

  • The privacy of all the citizens who use the services of Indian Post is severely compromised since there is no provision in the Bill which injuncts the officer from leaking any contents of the intercepted postal articles.

  • Raghav Chaddha of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) said that the Bill suffers from “Big Brother syndrome” and allows the government to monitor citizens.

  • The Opposition leaders also pointed out that the law does not clarify the grounds for interception.

  • Sukhendu Sekhar Ray of the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) called the clause “absolutely vague” . hat such a procedure will be fair and transparent.

  • The Bill fails to specify the procedure for interception, thus making it arbitrary in nature.

  • Congress MP Shashi Tharoor pointed out in the Lok Sabha that the Bill does not provide any grievance redressal mechanism to citizens despite relieving post officers of any liability with regard to the services offered

  • Referring to Section 9 of the Bill that permits interception, Mr. Tharoor underscored that there is no clause in the legislation asking the government to inform a citizen about such actions, and thus a citizen will be unable to raise concerns of interception or contest the action

What has been the history of the Bill?

  • Similar to the ground of ‘emergency’ under the Bill, the 1898 Act permits interception on grounds of ‘public emergency’. 

  • The Law Commission of India in its 38th report pointed out that since the term ‘emergency’ has not been explicitly defined.

  • It provides a wide ground for interception

  • It also flagged that since the term has not been defined in the Constitution.

  • It cannot serve as a reasonable ground for suspension of fundamental rights under Article 19(1). 

  • The Commission highlighted that a state of public emergency must be such that it is not secretive and is apparent to a reasonable man.

  • It recommended that the legislature should amend the existing laws relating to interception to ensure that they adhere to the Constitution.

  • This led to the enactment of the Telegraph (Amendment) Act of 1981.

  • A provision permitting interception was introduced earlier in the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill, 1986. 

  • It empowered the Union Government or the State Government or any authorised officer to ‘intercept or detain’ any postal article on the following grounds

  1. Public safety or tranquillity,

  2. Sovereignty, 

  3. Integrity of India,

  4. Security of the state, 

  5. Friendly relations with foreign states, 

  6. Public order, 

  7. Preventing the commission of any offence, 

  8. Occurrence of any public emergency. 

  • While the Bill was passed by both Houses, former President Zail Singh neither assented nor returned the Bill to the Parliament for reconsideration (he demitted office in July 1987).

  • As a result, the legislation remained in limbo and was withdrawn by the Vajpayee government in 2002.

What are the relevant Supreme Court rulings?

  • In the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) versus Union of India (1996), the constitutionality of Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act was challenged for permitting telephonic interception without any due process guarantees

  • The Supreme Court acknowledged that telephone tapping infringed upon the fundamental right to privacy.

  • Created safeguards against arbitrariness in the exercise of the state’s surveillance powers

  • It underscored that in the absence of a just and fair procedure to regulate the powers of interception, it is not possible to safeguard the rights of citizens under Articles 19(1)(a) and Article 21.

  • In the landmark verdict Justice KS Puttaswamy versus Union of India (2017), the Supreme Court unanimously declared the right to privacy to be a fundamental right of all Indians. 

  • The verdict stipulated that any state measure that proposes to interfere with the right to privacy must satisfy certain requirements.

  • The Court had opined with respect to the Pegasus spyware scandal that the state did not get “a free pass every time the spectre of national security is raised… National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning.”

What have experts said?

  • There is an absolute lack of safeguards under this Bill. 

  • It is not as if the Union government cannot have the power to notify a person to inspect, intercept, open, or detain a postal item. 

  • The issue is that there is a lack of the usual requirements that accompany such interception orders such as reasons to be recorded in writing.



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