New Delhi: The Delhi high court on Tuesday, August 29, dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking disclosure of electronic voting machine (EVM) serial numbers and manufacturers.
The plea requested that these details should be provided to the representatives of the political parties before the first-level checking (FLC) is completed.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the FLC of the machines is the first step of the verification process. However, the petition raised doubts over the credibility of the verification process. It pointed out that the FLC was completed even though the Congress party boycotted the process, saying that they were not provided with any information.
Once the FLC is over, the machines are sealed and stored in designated warehouses and opened only when the poll process begins, starting with the notification of the polls. The FLC for Delhi has been completed, the counsel for the Election Commission of India told the court.
The petition was filed by Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee chief, Anil Choudhary.
“If we don’t have these crucial details, what is the point of simply going to look at the machines? All machines look the same. In order to make sure that the serial number of the machine matches with our list, they have to provide [us with] the serial numbers, model, manufacturer. They are refusing to give us information about the basic hardware that will be used in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections,” one of the counsels for the petitioner told the court.
The petition says that letters were sent, inviting representatives of various political parties for the preparatory meetings. These meetings were scheduled to be held between July 6 and 12. These letters were issued by various Sub-Divisional Magistrates, who are authorised to conduct the FLC.
The letter said that the EVM and the voter verifiable paper audit trails (VVPATs) would be checked at the respective district headquarters in different parts of Delhi.
However, rather than addressing the concerns raised by the party, the Chief Electoral Officer, Delhi, went ahead with finalising the dates for the FLC which was to be conducted from July 15 to July 30. And since the party’s concerns were not addressed, the Congress boycotted the FLC process.
However, the SDMs issued letters to the Congress party, requesting them to participate. But they didn’t. And the FLC continued without them.
The FLC has been completed for Delhi, Kerala, and Jharkhand, and is underway in five states.
The petitioner filed a representation before the Chief Electoral Officer, saying that without this information, they will be unable to train their officers. These officers would be involved in the election process.
The Chief Electoral Officer, Ranbir Singh, heard the representatives; however, he did not address any of the issues raised by the party leaders.
“The entire attempt of the Election Commission is highly surreptitious. The procedure followed for the commencement of the FLC was not transparent,” said the PIL. Only oral assurances were made by the officers concerned. The Chief Electoral Officer rejected the contentions of the Congress in a written reply on August 10, forcing the petitioner to move court.
The petitioner also pointed out, citing circulars of 2017 and 2022, that for the elections held in the past, the FLC process had started six months in advance, as per ECI’s instructions. However, this time the process has been advanced by three months, arbitrarily, by the Chief Electoral Officer, making the “stakeholder political parties a silent spectator to the entire process”.
The counsel for the Election Commission told the court that the FLC process is being conducted as per the election manual, which has not been challenged by the petitioners.
“The manual says that after the [first-level] checking is done, the machine is sealed in the presence of the representatives and details are provided after that. If the details are to be provided before the FLC, then it will be a cumbersome exercise and the FLC across the country will have to start afresh. This is not a minor exercise,” he said.
Jagdeep Chokar from the Association for Democratic reforms said, “The FLC is the first step in the process of electronic voting. The entire process has to be and should be transparent and open to scrutiny. It is imperative that the outcome of the FLC be shared, otherwise the curtain of opacity will continue to hide the functioning of the EVMs.”
A reasoned court order is expected to be uploaded soon.