With the advent of e filing, e transacting and e compliance in all that we do, and its ever increasing reach during the past few years, the entire mode of administration, surveillance and governance has changed in India. It all started with the e filing of income tax returns, over a decade ago. These forms were relatively simple and e filing was meant to be an assessee friendly move, who had to otherwise face the harassment of visiting the tax office, stand in a queue and file his return. Thereafter these tax forms started getting bigger and more complicated, with lots of data being attached to a common link ie. your PAN number and Adhar number. Thus the PAN was a link with your bank account to start with, such that it gave the Income Tax Department a ready access to your bank account, whether you permitted it or not. The e filing of the IT return was a success and it soon led to e filing of TDS returns, VAT returns, service tax returns, ROC returns and many others, all with a common link ie. your PAN number, providing a ready cross check to the government, to keep a tab on you. So, at a very elementary level, if a tax payer under reported his sales and profits in his income tax return, but he showed good turnover and profits in his audited financial statements submitted to the ROC, he would soon be caught, since the system is now automatically comparing the two databases with the common link ie. the PAN number.
The system now generates a redflag if there is any mismatch in the various database generated due to the filing of many returns with numerous agencies/authorities. Thus if you purchase a house property and do not report it, you will be caught because the local registering authority would have anyway reported it in its periodical returns that it submits in this common database. As long as this comprehensive data base was being used to spot tax evaders and law violators, it was good, since it helped to curb tax evasion, increased tax collection and improved compliance with the law. E filing also reduced the harassment of the common man, by eliminating his interface with various authorities, even though such harassment is now back, with all e forms, whether they be under GST, income tax, ROC etc. becoming highly complicated and difficult to upload.
But the comprehensive database, which is now in the possession of the government, soon resulted in its misuse. At a very basic level whats app calls and messages are reportedly intercepted and snooped and database system software is simply tweaked to delay your income tax and GST refunds, which are otherwise promised to be auto generated. On the other hand, on a much more serious note, armed with such exhaustive data, the government is now able to effortlessly put you under surveillance 24×7. With everything under e mode, including your daily spending, you are in effect constantly under government watch. Thus if you thought that privacy was your fundamental right, you have in effect lost it to the electronic mode of living. While it is good that with every taxable transaction, including those done overseas, being known to the government, tax evaders cannot go scot free, yet the fact is that such surveillance soon crosses the line of legality and intrudes into your privacy. It has helped the government to conduct politically motivated actions, which is a matter of concern. With data being easily available at the click of a button, any checks and balances to prevent its misuse will be difficult to enforce, unless the government is committed to prevent illegal surveillance, which does not appear to be so at present.
Amidst this comes a Forrester Report which says that India is among the list of countries where government surveillance has become a major concern from a data privacy perspective and its surveillance is at alarming levels. India has been named as a country with minimal restrictions in terms of data privacy and protection, where government surveillance is a matter of caution. An expert says that while the right to privacy is constitutionally recognised, there are very few laws and regulations in India, which govern government surveillance. There are no easy constitutional provisions that enable the monitoring of government surveillance activity to check whether it is legal or illegal. Thus there is little legislative oversight and judicial decision making around surveillance. That’s a direct threat to privacy and freedom, as India gets deeper and deeper into e filing and e transacting.