The draft Data Accessibility and Use Policy 2022 is significant not merely for its content but also its contrast with the country’s larger background context. The usefulness of sharing data is immeasurable, not merely for India to achieve its ambition of a $5 trillion economy (mentioned in paragraph 1.2 of the draft), but also to improve the vigour of practice of democracy (nowhere mentioned in the policy).
One cannot argue with the policy’s 13 objectives (para 1.2). The policy principles (para 5) are unobjectionable data must be ‘open by default’, there must be operational transparency, interoperability, integration and technology agnosticism, practices and systems must be user-centred, with privacy and security. Access must be equal and non-discriminatory, there must be regulatory clarity and structured enforcement, sharing must be proactive, particularly for innovation and research, intellectual property must be protected and, most important, there must be well-defined accountability for all stakeholders. Every tenet preached by open-data evangelists everywhere is in the draft.
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From the process standpoint, the coordinating process comprises of an India Data Office under the ministry of electronics and information technology, data management units headed by chief data officers in each ministry, and an India Data Council comprising these officers to deal with interinstitutional and intergovernmental coordination, covering technical matters such as data standards, as also to define high-value datasets.
Yet there are a few dodgy bits in the draft. We see the usual open-ended disclaimer: data in a negative list or classified under a restricted access category will not be shared by default (para 7.1). Second, high-value datasets can be identified and access restricted (para 10). Third, while minimally processed data sets will be available free, ministries can price and license data use (para 11). All the windows are open to enable the entry of discretion, restrict access, sell valuable data at a bargain and generally negate the principle of free and open access while protecting privacy. We have a glorious tradition of overworking loopholes.
Consider this. The government expressed its inability to provide information on the number of deaths of medical personnel during the pandemic, the number of deaths due to lack of oxygen supply, the number of people who were forced to migrate due to the sudden declaration of the lockdown, the number of farmers who died due to the agitation against the farm laws, and so on. If such a policy existed when these questions were being asked both in Parliament and through public discourse, would anyone have been made accountable for the government’ failure to provide such data? Would such data be considered to be inimical to national security, or a high-value dataset that is available only to a few who can afford to pay for it?
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What use is a draft policy on data accessibility if there is unwillingness to provide data and if there are loopholes to dodge transparency obligations? How does one liberate the intention to provide data impartially from the clutches of the propaganda strategies of the government in power at any time?
India’s governments have had a patchy record of implementing transparency and accountability-enhancing legislation. The Right to Information Act contains all the legislative underpinnings for the voluntary disclosure of data. This data transparency policy builds detail into that legislative intent. Similarly, states have enacted Right to Services Acts that guarantee delivery of services within declared time limits. However, the potential of such laws has been undermined ever since governments grew unashamed of turning away from their obligations and realised that they could flout them with impunity. We will block you till you realise that the balance of convenience lies in not asking us any questions—that seems to be the tone and tenor of government responses to requests under existing transparency laws.
Technical fixes are possible to ensure the default openness of data. It would be relatively easy to provide real-time data from public sector databases automatically into the public domain, after passing it through a privacy filter where sensitive personal attributes of the data are sieved out. However, technology is subservient to political intent. It is critically dependent upon the trust between the government and citizens, which is now eroding fast.