Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) are manufacturers of electronic voting machines (EVMs), voter verified paper trail (VVPAT) units and symbol loading units (SLUs), which have been under the watchful eye of RTI (Right to Information) activists, against the backdrop of alleged tampering of EVMs in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar and programme co-ordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), filed RTI applications to both the organisations, seeking identical information on:
- the maximum number of votes recordable on each EVM supplied for use in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections;
- the maximum number of votes printable on each VVPAT machine;
- the district-wise number of control units of EVMs transported across India;
- the district-wise number of ballot units of EVMs transported across India;
- the district-wise number of VVPATs transported across India;
- the district-wise number of thermal paper rolls used in VVPATs transported across India;
- Photocopy of the list of engineers with name and designation, deputed for carrying out tasks relating to the preparation of EVMs and VVPATs that was sent to every district election officer in India and similar information on SLUs.
The central public information officer (CPIO) of BEL, to this requisition under RTI in June 2019, promptly replied that information could be supplied at a cost of Rs1,434 for the photocopying of pages.
However, a month later, BEL completely somersaulted stating that BEL did not hold most of the information and also rejected one of the queries (pertaining to names of engineers) stating that disclosure would endanger the life of its engineers and actually returned the bank draft that Mr Nayak had sent for fee payment!
As for the ECIL, it has uploaded some of this information on the RTI online facility but rejected access to some crucial bits of information sought in my RTI application. States Mr Nayak, “I have not received a formal reply from the ECIL's under its central public information officer's signature, via email or in hard copy till date. As for the BEL, I promptly sent the CPIO, BEL a bank draft for Rs1,434 for the 700 plus pages of records, while reserving my right to appeal against his refusal to part with the VVPAT application. Then I waited for more than a month for this information thinking that the delay might be because of the time taken to copy 700+ pages of records. After 40 days had lapsed, on 28 August 2019, I filed a first appeal, challenging the non-supply of information. That’s when the CPIO who was silent until then, woke up and sent a reply returning the bank draft and claimed that BEL did not have the information that I had asked for.”
Mr Nayak Analyses What Is Problematic with These RTI Replies?
- BEL's CPIO had initially agreed to supply information about the number of EVMs (control and ballot units) and VVPATs manufactured by the company, and the thermal paper rolls used in the VVPATs, all of which were sent to the districts for use during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He had also agreed to supply the list of engineers who took part in and coordinated and supervised the preparation of these machines for the elections. He had physically counted the number of pages relatable to each RTI query and demanded fees accordingly.
- In his revised reply, however, he states that BEL does not hold most of the requested information. So which papers did he count before sending the first reply? Only one of these replies can be true, not both. Perhaps the latest reply is an afterthought arising out of pressure exerted—probably by an external agency against making this information public. I hope the identity of this external agency is revealed during the appeal proceedings in the coming months.
- Even more surprising is the CPIO's latest claim that revealing the names of engineers who helped with the technological aspects of polling would put their lives and physical safety in danger. If the 2019 Lok Sabha Polls were, indeed, free and fair without any element of foul play whatsoever, how could transparency endanger the lives and safety of these engineers? These companies, the ECI and the government have a lot to explain.
- Next, ECIL's CPIO claimed that they do not have readily available information about the number of EVMs, VVPATs and thermal paper rolls that were sent by their own company to the districts.
- This is very strange, indeed, because ECIL was responsible for manufacturing at least 50% of these machines deployed during the 2019 elections. The elections were conducted without encountering the problem of non-availability of an adequate number of EVMs and VVPATs. So this part of the reply is also difficult to digest.
- The comparative picture arising from the RTI replies sent by BEL and ECIL's CPIOs: a) Both CPIOs have confirmed that their EVMs can record a maximum of 2,000 votes per machine. b) However, BEL's VVPAT Unit can record a maximum of 1,300 votes while ECIL's VVPAT can record 1,400 votes per thermal paper roll. c) Interestingly, BEL says they used 1,400 symbol loading units (SLUs) to load candidate information in the EVMs and VVPATs. But ECIL says they used 3,299 SLUs for loading candidate information on their machines in different parts of the country.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”