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Is Election Commission ready for 2019 polls?

September 21, 2018 14:11 IST

The poll watchdog faces two Herculean tasks -- to produce over a million VVPATs in time for the 2019 elections and to iron out glitches in the machines which are already in use, reports Sai Manish.

IMAGE: A polling official checks the serial numbers on Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail machines at a distribution centre ahead of the final phase of voting in Ahmedabad last December. Till July this year, 5,88,000 VVPATs were delivered. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

The scenario is tricky. The deadlines tight. The stakes even higher. The universal rollout of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail envisaged by the Election Commission of India for the 2019 elections faces two major hurdles. Firstly, there are manufacturing tweaks to be done on VVPATs to make them less prone to malfunction. 

The second problem involves meeting the deadlines of manufacturing 1.6 million VVPATs. While the manufacturers of VVPATs plan to solve the first problem with a little bit of common sense, the second one looks as improbable as it looks daunting.

The daunting task first.

 

In May 2017, the ECI asked two public sector undertakings -- Bengaluru-based Bharat Electronics Limited and Hyderabad-based Electronics Corporation of India Limited -- to supply 1.6 million VVPATs to be used in all polling booths across India in the 2019 elections. It was during this period that the ECI held consultations with all political parties and decided to roll out these machines in all state and parliamentary elections in the near future.

This was also the month when India’s election watchdog was furiously defending itself against attacks from various quarters questioning the credibility and reliability of electronic voting machines. The ECI had set a deadline of November 2018 for the delivery of all these VVPATs. Till July this year, 5,88,000 VVPATs were delivered by the two PSUs. Most of these were produced by BEL.

An off-the-cuff calculation would show that if both these PSUs continue to manufacture VVPATs at the rate that they have been doing in the past, the ECI’s target of rolling out these machines before pre-poll preparations for 2019 elections begin will not be achieved.

It was on July 25 this year that the ECI announced that only 5,88,000 VVPATs had been manufactured. In effect, it had taken both these public companies 420 days to manufacture the machines. That’s 1,400 VVPATs produced by both BEL and ECIL every day since that time.

When the ECI disclosed the number of manufactured VVPATs in July this year, both these public companies had another 127 days to achieve the target. If these companies were to keep producing machines at the same pace as they have done in the past, they would be able to manufacture only 1,77,800 VVPATs till the deadline expires before the end of November. That’s just 17 per cent of VVPATs that the ECI has asked for to install at all polling booths in the 2019 Parliamentary elections.

In other terms, if both public companies were to manufacture these machines at the same rate, it would take another 734 days, or two years, to meet these requirements.

Clearly, even if production was to be doubled, meeting the objective of installing VVPATs at all polling booths seems to be an improbable task -- at least for the moment.

While BEL officials declined to comment on record, there seems to be a great deal of positivity in their minds on “not letting the Election Commission’s targets slip come what may”. Specific questions sent to the office of ECIL Chairman and Managing Director Rear Admiral Sanjay Chaubey (retired) did not elicit a response till the time of publication.

But despite the enormity of the task at hand, ECI officials were surprisingly confident of meeting the targets. 

However, there remain serious doubts over the credibility of these machines. The ECI faced severe criticism after reports of large-scale defects in VVPATs during the Kairana and Bhandara-Gondiya bypolls held in May this year. The BJP lost both these bypolls to regional parties. There were reports that VVPATs failed to print the vote cast by a voter in these two constituencies.

The ECI’s investigation found that this error was caused primarily due failure of the contrast sensor and length sensor installed in these machines. The ECI asked the manufacturers of these machines to examine the cause of the problems. The miserable performance of these machines was attributed to excessive exposure to sunlight or other bright sources of artificial light.

People privy to the manufacturing process of VVPATs said that the simplest solution to this problem was to cover these machines to reduce exposure to direct sunlight. While such common sense solutions to malfunctioning of VVPATs might solve certain problems, there are others that won’t be solved quite easily given the logistical challenges of conducting elections in a country with a vast geography and challenging physiology.

An official with knowledge of the manufacturing process said, “The VVPAT is not a military grade product and needed to be handled carefully. There is no technical glitch in a VVPAT. The malfunctions which are being reported are primarily on account of handling problems. After it leaves the factory, the VVPATs are transported across the country on anything from trucks and jeeps to bullock carts. These are transported in all kinds of weather from extreme heat, humidity and cold. At the end of the day, a VVPAT machine is a commercial grade product and it needs to be handled with certain amount of care failing which it can malfunction.”

So if something as important as election equipment has to be made to military standards, then why is the ECI not pushing for it?

People familiar with the production process of election machines said that manufacturing military grade VVPATs would lead to massive cost escalation involving replacing the materials of all major components of a VVPAT. The costs of such an exercise would be extremely prohibitive. There are issues more than just handling precautions that need to be addressed about these machines.

Can a VVPAT be manipulated as has been alleged in the case of an EVM? Will a VVPAT print a vote other than what the voter has actually cast?

The official adds, “The VVPAT machine has no intelligence of its own. It will print whatever command is sent from the EVM and whatever information is stored in the memory unit of the EVM. There is no question of VVPAT machine printing something different from the input received by the EVM. The information which is displayed on the screen is printed on the paper.”

So even as Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah in the recent past and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Mann Ki Baat radio programme on August 26 again called for simultaneous elections, Chief Election Commissioner Om Prakash Rawat expressed his apprehensions on such a massive exercise.

Rawat said, “There are not enough VVPAT machines to conduct simultaneous polls in 2019.”

In fact, reports suggest that the ECI now wants to keep a reserve stock of VVPATs to minimise the impact of malfunctioning machines on the credibility of Indian elections and has increased its demand for these machines to 1.74 million from the present 1.6 million.

As things stand, India’s top election body may struggle to get even the original order of VVPATs on time to hold a normal parliamentary election. 

Sai Manish in New Delhi
Source: