Balance public interest, right to privacy, Tata tells SC

New Delhi, Aug 21 (IANS) Former Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata Wednesday appeared in the Supreme Court and said that while ordering electronic surveillance on citizens allegedly under cloud, the government must strike a balance between public interest and the right to privacy.

"The government has to balance two pivotal dimensions - public interest and privacy of the citizens" while ordering wire surveillance, counsel for Tata, who was personally present in the court, told the court.

An apex court bench of Justice G.S. Singhvi and Justice V. Gopala Gowda is hearing Tata's plea seeking a probe into the leak of former corporate lobbyist Niira Radia's tapped conversations.

According to a statement issued by Tata Sons, the holding firms of Tata Group, Tata appeared in the court and showed keen interest in the progress of the "right to privacy petition" filed by him.

"Ratan Tata has filed this writ petition on a matter of principle. He believes privacy is an important right for every individual and is keenly following the progress of this case," a Tata Sons spokesperson said.

Radia's phones were put under surveillance by the Income Tax department after the finance ministry Nov 16, 2007 received an anonymous letter alleging that in a short span of few years she had built a business house of Rs.300 crore. The complaint had also alleged foreign connections of Radia.

The Income Tax department had put Radia's phone under surveillance thrice for 60 days each between 2008-09.

Appearing for Tata, senior counsel Harish Salve said that privacy was a constitutionally guaranteed right and it was incumbent upon the government to protect from public gaze the information it had gathered by resorting to electronic surveillance.

The government could not raise its hand and say that it did not have the mechanism to protect the tapped information after it was leaked and printed by media, Salve said.

Referring to the publication of parts of the transcripts of the tapped conversations of Radia, Salve said if a person could get Radia tape transcripts then he could also access details of terror related intercepts.

He said the government did not have any statutory backing for undertaking such surveillance.

The provision of keeping a watch on an undesirable person was not the same as resorting to electronic surveillance, the senior counsel told the court.

The publication of the CBI's report, that was given to the apex court in a sealed cover, by a newspaper was in violation of the Official Secrets Act and in such a situation the government not only had the power but the duty to launch prosecution, he said.

Salve said that after electronic surveillance, the concerned department should segregate actionable information from the rest and later should be destroyed. If an officer sits over the actionable information then such an officer should be hauled up for dereliction of duty.

At the same time, the senior counsel said that if nothing was found and it was discovered that the surveillance was done for extraneous reasons and malicious intention then such officers should be proceeded against for violating citizen's right to privacy.

Salve pleaded for replacing the existing review committee by a permanent independent body entrusted with the task of auditing tapping of telephones by different agencies.

The hearing will continue Thursday.

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