Spy agencies under parliament oversight?

A serious move is underway to make India's external spy agencies answerable to a committee under the prime minister.

NEW DELHI: A serious move is under way to bring the functions and finances of India's domestic and external spy agencies under parliament's oversight.

In a clear indication of things to come, a draft law, albeit from a private member, was introduced in parliament last week that seeks to both empower the snooping agencies as statutory entities and make them answerable to a committee under the prime minister.

According to Congress MP from Ludhiana Manish Tewari, who drafted the private member's bill and introduced it in parliament, Indian intelligence agencies are no legal entities and there is no control on how information they gather is used.

The bill seeks to bring the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India's internal intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), its external spy outfit, and the technical intelligence collector National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) under parliament's purview.

If the bill becomes law, it would provide the agencies enough legal safeguards while bringing in oversight in the form of a National Intelligence and Security Oversight Committee with members from both the government and opposition in it.

The bill, which took its present form over the past two years relying on replies to questions Tewari asked inside parliament, was also inspired by research carried out by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

"The bill has suggested a structured mechanism for the oversight of intelligence agencies while taking into consideration the concerns of the intelligence community, incorporating enough safeguards against misuse of information," Tewari says, hinting at political misuse.

Though the ideals are lofty, the big question is why such important legislation has been brought to parliament in the form of a private member's bill when the record of such bills being passed is remote, as per data available with the PRS Legislative Research.

"Since 1952, only 14 private members' bills have ever been passed by parliament and the last one was in 1970," according to the PRS Legislative Research study.

But Tewari is positive about his effort.

"The reason for introducing it as a private member's bill is that there can be an informed discussion. In most instances, the government agrees in parliament to consider a bill of its own. We have to wait and see how this works out. But it is an idea whose time has come," he said.

Government officials indicate the idea has indeed caught the fancy of National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, a committee of secretaries and the home ministry.

Former home secretary G.K. Pillai himself assured Tewari that his bill is under study as there is a consensus in the government on the need for such legislation the need for which has been mooted even at the level of Vice President M.H. Ansari.

But former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra fears that a parliament oversight may hinder the working of the intelligence agencies. Tewari underlines that the bill has enough firewalls that allow the prime minister to exercise discretion on what may or may not jeopardise their operations and functioning.

"Our agencies are, in a very real sense, shadowy outfits. The drafting of a private member's bill on intelligence is long overdue and welcome," says Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

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The New Indian Express