India's twin election problem: No machines, dysfunctional machines

The VVPAT machines, which will be attached to the EVMs, will allow voters to verify if their vote has gone to the intended candidate. (Photo: pib.nic.in)
The scenario is tricky, and deadlines tight. The stakes are even higher. The universal rollout of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) envisaged by the Election Commission of India (ECI) for the 2019 Parliamentary elections faces two major hurdles.

Firstly, there are manufacturing tweaks to be done on VVPATs to make them less prone to malfunction and improve their credibility among candidates, political parties and voters alike. The second problem involves meeting the deadlines of manufacturing 1.6 million VVPATs at least six months before Parliamentary elections are conducted in the summer of 2019. 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 PSUs – Bengaluru-based Bharat Electronics Limited and Hyderabad-based Electronics Corporation of India Limited to supply 1.6 million VVPATs to be used at 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 (EVMs).

The ECI had set a deadline of November 2018 for the delivery of all these VVPATs. Till July this year, 588,000 VVPATs had been delivered by the two PSUs. Most of these were produced by BEL, and a smaller number by ECIL.

An off-the-cuff calculation would show that if both these PSUs continued to manufacture VVPATs at the rate they had been doing in the past, the ECI’s target of rolling out these machines before pre-poll preparations for 2019 Parliamentary elections began would not be achieved. It was on July 25 this year that the ECI had announced that only 588,000 VVPATs had been manufactured. In effect, it had taken both these public companies 420 days to manufacture the machines. That means 1,400 VVPATs were 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 of producing the remaining machines. If these companies were to keep producing machines at the same pace as in the past, they would be able to manufacture only 177,800 VVPATs before the deadline would expire towards the end of November. That would be just 17 per cent of the VVPATs ECI sought to install at all polling booths in the 2019 Parliamentary elections.

In other words, if both public companies were to manufacture these machines at the same rate, it would take another 734 days (or two more years) to meet these requirements. Clearly, even if the production were to be doubled, meeting the objective of installing VVPATs at all polling booths would seem an improbable task – at least for the moment.

While BEL officials declined to comment on record, there seemed 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 Rear Admiral (Retd) Sanjay Chaubey, the CMD of ECIL, did not elicit a response till the time of publication of this report.

But despite the enormity of the task at hand, ECI officials were surprisingly confident of meeting the targets. The ECI said in a media release on July 25: “VVPAT deliveries are delayed as the technical experts’ committee on EVMs analyses the technology stabilisation issues in the initial batches and incorporates essential design improvements. Even then, due to continuous monitoring at the highest level, including personal visits by the Commission to all production units, all VVPATs shall be delivered well before the end of November 2018, well within the time required for making pre-poll preparations.”

The ECI further noted: “The Commission would like to allay any unfounded apprehensions regarding the supply of VVPATs for the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The Commission is committed to 100% deployment of VVPATs at all polling stations in the future general elections to the Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies.”

While it remains unclear how many more man hours and production lines would have to be added to produce VVPATs at a breakneck speed, there are 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 Gondaiya bypolls held in May this year. The Bharatiya Janata Party (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 to 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 VVPAT’s told Business Standard 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 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 to 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 up to military standards, 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 replacement of the materials for all major components of a VVPAT. The cost of such an exercise would be extremely prohibitive.

There are more issues 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 Electronic Voting Machine (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 machines 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 BJP chief Amit Shah in the recent past and PM Modi in his Mann Ki Baat programme on August 26 again called for simultaneous elections, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) 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 might struggle to get even the original order of VVPATs on time to hold a normal Parliamentary election. 


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