New Delhi [India]: Rajya Sabha on Monday passed a Bill to repeal the Indian Post Office Act, 1898 and to consolidate and amend the law relating to the post offices in India.
The opposition members raised questions over some provisions of the bill and asked if the government wanted to create a "surveillance state".
The government rejected the apprehensions of the members. Minister of State for Communications Devusinh Chauhan said provisions have been made for reasons of national security and there were similar provisions in the previous version of the Post Office Bill too.
"The government has a right to keep track of illegal substances like narcotics being transported through postal networks and this is in the public interest," Chauhan said.
The Bill states that the Central Government may, by notification, empower any officer to intercept, open or detain "any item in the interest of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, emergency, or public safety or upon the occurrence of any contravention of any of the provisions of any law for the time being in force".
The bill was passed by a voice vote after a reply by the Minister for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw.
The bill provides that Post Office shall provide such services as the Central Government may by rules prescribe and the Director General of Postal Services shall make regulations in respect of activities necessary to provide those services and fix the charges for such services.
The bill provides India Post will not incur any liability with regards to its services, except any liability prescribed through rules.
Participating in the debate, opposition members said the bill provides that the government can open any parcel.
YSRCP's V Vijayasai Reddy supported the Bill and said it is a step towards three pillars of good postal service, reliability, reach, and relevance.
He made three suggestions to Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw to improve the Bill -- rethink pricing to increase profitability and introduce differential pricing based on location, digitise services wherever possible, like replacing money orders with mobile transfers, and invest in payments bank and financial services in rural areas.
Shiv Sena's Priyanka Chaturvedi raised surveillance concerns "under the garb of reforms".
The MP said that clauses 9 and 10 of the Post Office Bill can lead to surveillance and authorities responsible will not be held liable once this Bill is passed.
Chaturvedi also mentioned that she wrote a letter to the government about messages received by some Opposition members about possible hacking.
CPI's P Sandosh Kumar said he was grateful to the Communications Minister for retaining the name of the Bill in English so that it is "understandable to each and every Indian".
He said the bill had provisions regarding interception of "any item" and also referred to allegations in the wake of Pegasus row.
"This will turn our post offices into Pegasus offices," the MP alleged alluding to the allegations levelled by the opposition about the use of Israeli spyware.
National security is a concept that can be easily misused and "this government has misused it many times", he alleged.
CPI-M's AA Rahim criticised the Bill and claimed that no post has been created in the postal services since 2014.
"As of now, 90,000 existing posts (in postal services) are lying vacant. Is this the evolution and prosperity of the services?" he asked.
The MP also claimed that the lack of appointments to vacant posts and provisions of the new Bill will pave the way for the privatisation of the sector.
"The Bill is against the federal principles of the country," the MP said.
AAP MP Raghav Chadha alleged that the Post Office Bill has "Big Brother syndrome".
"The legislation betrays a 'Big Brother' syndrome that plagues the government as it will give the government unchecked power to open, read, detain and intercept mail and take whatever action they like, without due limitations embedded in the law. The grounds to open and intercept mail are vague and the Bill fails to specify procedures for allowing such interception," Chadha said.
He also raised the issue of the recent iPhone hacking alerts and called for an investigation by a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the attack.