Once again the reliability of the machine-based voting system has become the subject of widespread debate Credit: Representational image

Guwahati: In the wake of mounting allegations on tampering voting machines, including Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter Verified Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) during the Lok Sabha elections 2019, Access to Information Programme, a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, filed an RTI under The Rights to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act).

There has been heightened anxieties over EVMs and VVPATs, despite the ECI repeatedly urging political parties and skeptics to trust the ability of the EVMs to faithfully record all votes cast through them and accurately display the electoral mandate on counting day. This is why the organisation initiated and filed the RTI.

Following are the main findings from documents obtained through the three RTI interventions:

1) The micro-controllers (computer chip) embedded in the Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL)-manufactured EVMs and VVPATs used in the current elections, are manufactured by NXP, a reputable multi-billion dollar corporation based in the USA;

2) Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) refused to disclose the identity of the manufacturer of the micro-controller used in its EVMs and VVPATs citing commercial confidence under Section 8(1)(d of the RTI Act;

3) In 2017, some segments of the media reported that Microchip Inc, USA headed by an NRI billionaire supplied the EVM micro-controllers. Documents released under the RTI Act show that at least BEL has not used this company’s micro-controllers in the EVMs sold to ECI for use in the current elections;

4) While the ECI continues to claim that the micro-controller used in the EVMs is one-time programmable (OTP), the description of the micro-controller’s features on NXP’s website indicates that it has three kinds of memory – SRAM, FLASH and EEPROM (or E2PROM). Experts who know enough and more about micro-controllers confirm that a computer chip which includes FLASH memory cannot be called OTP;

5) The ECI has not yet made any decision on the September 2018 recommendation of the Central Information Commission (CIC) to get the competent authorities to examine whether detailed information about the firmware or source code used in the EVMs can be placed in the public domain in order to create public trust in the EVM-based voting system;

6) Despite the passage of more than five years, the ECI does not appear to have acted on the 2013 recommendation of its own Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) to make the firmware or source code embedded in the micro-controller used in EVMs transparent in order to ensure that there is no Trojan or other malware in the EVMs;

7) ECIL replied that the firmware or source code testing was done by a third party, namely, STQC- an agency under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. But the CPIO denied access to the reports on the ground that they were too voluminous. BEL denied access to this information claiming the exemption relating to commercial confidence and intellectual property rights under Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act;

8) BEL bagged a purchase order worth Rs 2,678.13 crore to supply EVMs and VVPATs to ECI. The ECIL, however, refused to disclose this information also stating that despatch data will be supplied after the General Elections are completed; and

9) While BEL claimed that the battery powering its EVM could last 16 hours of non-stop voting with 4 ballot units, the ECIL claimed a battery life of two years for its EVMs;

10) While ECIL claimed that the firmware and source code audit related information was “classified” and could not be disclosed under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act which protects national security interests, BEL claimed commercial confidence and Intellectual Property Rights-related exemption under Section 8(1)(d) to deny access to the same information.

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Venkatesh Nayak, programme head, Access to Information Programme, said: “These RTI interventions are aimed at placing as much information as possible in the public domain about EVMs, VVPATs and other related matters which the ECI or other public authorities are reluctant to publish voluntarily. In the context of elections, perhaps voter choice- individually and at the community level, are the limited set of matters that deserve confidentiality, legally and legitimately. All other matter must be amenable to “public examination” and facilitate informed public debate.”

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