Govt said buy VVPATs from private sector, Election Commission said no, will hurt public faith

Poll panel put its foot down after receiving three letters from the government seeking its views on the proposal.

ARGUING that the involvement of private players could hurt the credibility of the electoral process, the Election Commission (EC) rejected the government’s proposal to buy voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) units from private manufacturers. This is confirmed by official records obtained by The Indian Express this week under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and VVPATs in India, from the beginning, have only been produced by two public sector units — Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) in Bengaluru and Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) in Hyderabad.

VVPAT units produce a printout of the vote cast using an Electronic Voting Machine or EVM, which can be shown to the voter to dispel any doubts. This printout is then deposited in a box and can be used to resolve any dispute regarding the election.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the poll panel to introduce VVPATs in a phased manner, and the Commission has committed to have it in place by the time of the 2019 general elections.

As reported by this newspaper earlier, the Union Cabinet on July 20, 2016, had asked the EC to explore the feasibility of engaging private players to help meet the VVPAT production targets ahead of general elections in 2019 and also bring down the price of each unit. Documents show this suggestion had its origins in a meeting held in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on July 11, 2016.

The above meeting was chaired by P K Mishra, Additional Principal Secretary to the PM, and attended by representatives of EC, Law Ministry and Finance Ministry. After this meeting, the Law Ministry started pressing the Commission for its opinion and also the view of its Technical Expert Committee (TEC) on the “feasibility of getting the VVPAT units manufactured in the private.

The introduction of the paper trail system is crucial for the EC to maintain public faith in EVMs, whose accuracy, lately, has been questioned by the Opposition parties on many occasions, especially after the results of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in last year.

To allay fears, the EC covered all polling stations with VVPATs for Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat Assembly elections and mandatorily tallied all paper trail slips of one polling station in each seat. The EC has already placed orders for close to 14 lakh VVPAT units with ECIL and BEL to cover all polling stations during the conduct of 2019 Lok Sabha elections and simultaneous polls in five states.

Here are the arguments that the Commission’s TEC made against buying VVPATs from the private sector:

* Concerns that public faith in VVPATs, which are accessories to EVMs, may be dented if these are manufactured by the private sector

* Before polls, all VVPATs have to undergo a field-level check or FLC in the presence of political parties. After FLC, engineers from the manufacturing company load election data into each EVM and VVPAT. TEC was unsure if the general public would have the same level of confidence in elections if the FLC and data loading were to be done by a private agency.

* Concerns whether a private player would take unconditional responsibility to service the VVPAT machines for 15 years, like BEL and EClL currently do.

* Not sure how a private manufacturer would incorporate security features in its production process to ensure VVPATs are tamper proof.

* Can a private player, in a short span of time, be able install the high-grade quality assurance infrastructure that BEL and ECIL already have on account of manufacturing products for strategic sectors like defence, atomic energy and space?

Source: The Indian Express