Listen to this article:
New Delhi: Even as the BJP-led Karnataka government mulls over whether or not to allow Halal meat, in what appears to be the latest row in the series of political attempts to corner Muslims in the state, the chief opposition Congress raised the issue of over alleged 19 lakh “missing” electronic voting machines (EVMs) from the coffers of the Election Commission of India (ECI) between 2016 and 2019.
During a special debate on electoral reforms in the state assembly, former rural development minister and senior Congress legislator H.K. Patil cited RTI responses to press the speaker to seek clarification from the ECI over the matter.
Speaking to The Wire, Patil said that he was speaking on the most significant concerns of Indian democracy currently: non-transparency around electoral bonds and doubts being raised across the country about EVMs.
“I requested the speaker to summon the ECI. It is answerable to people. When I made an accusation in a forum like the state assembly, I did it with utmost seriousness,” said Patil.
Following the debate, the speaker Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri on Tuesday agreed to summon the ECI and seek an explanation.
Patil cited RTI responses received by Mumbai-based activist Manoranjan Roy from Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) – both public sector units that manufacture EVMs – and the ECI. Based on the responses, Roy assessed that there are more than 19 lakh EVMs that were supplied by the PSUs to the ECI but were not marked as “received” by the poll panel. Roy’s PIL on the matter, seeking an explanation from the ECI, is being heard in the Bombay high court since 2018.
“According to the ECI’s response on June 21, 2017 to Roy’s RTI application, the election authority received 10.5 lakh EVMs from BEL between 1989-90 and 2014-15. The ECI also stated that it received 10,14, 644 EVMs from ECIL between 1989-90 to 2016-17,” Patil told The Wire while explaining how the discrepancy appeared in the RTI.
“Roy also received BEL’s response on Jan 2, 2018 that said it had supplied 19,69,932 EVMs to ECI between 1989-90 and 2014-15. Similarly, ECIL’s RTI response dated Septemebr 16, 2017 stated it has supplied 19,44,593 EVMs to the ECI between 1989-90 and 2014-15,” he added.
“Which means the ECI did not receive 9,64,270 EVMs that the BEL said were delivered and 9,29,449 such machines that the ECIL said it had supplied to the ECI,” Patil said.
He said Roy’s RTI query had also asked the two PSUs for a year-wise break up of machines that were supplied. “The figures that emerged from the year-wise break up are replete with gross disparities. The cumulative number of missing EVMs comes to around 19 lakh, which includes 62,183 EVMs that BEL claimed to have dispatched to the ECI in 2014 but not acknowledged as received by the poll regulator.”
“The RTI responses indicate a big fraud. One can’t be silent on this as it puts a question mark on the legitimacy of Indian democracy. Unfortunately, the ECI has only given unclear answers at the Bombay high court in the last 10 hearings. It has not deemed the issue important enough to clarify all the doubts,” Patil said.
The issue of ‘missing EVMs’ was first highlighted by Frontline in 2019 in a detailed story about Roy’s RTI responses and his PIL at the Bombay high court. “The RTI documents highlighted glaring discrepancies in all three operations—procurement, storage and deployment—and also pointed to grave financial irregularities to the tune of Rs.116.55 crore,” the Frontline report said.
“The appalling mismatches spread to payments too. A cumulative assessment of payment statements obtained for transactions between the ECI and BEL for the 10-year period from 2006-07 to 2016-17 shows that the ECI’s ‘actual expenditure’ on EVMs is Rs 536,01,75,485, while BEL’s RTI reply dated September 20, 2017, claims it received a payment of Rs 652,56,44,000 from the ECI for the corresponding period. That is an excess payment of Rs.116.55 crore,” the report said.
Speaking with Frontline, Roy had said that his PIL is intended to only seek clarity on the mismatches so that the ever-growing clamour against rigging through EVMs and malfunctioning of those machines can be put to rest. “Where have the excess machines supplied by BEL and ECIL actually gone and what is the secret behind the excess money received by BEL? The fact of the matter is that neither the ECI nor the SECs have a robust system to procure, store, deploy EVMs and also destroy malfunctioning and unwanted EVMs,” he said.
The controversy over ‘missing’ EVMs only escalated after the ECI’s response to another RTI application by Roy. The ECI on July 21, 2017 said that it had not sold any EVMs as scrap, and added that EVMs procured in 1989-90 were destroyed by manufacturers themselves. Also, those that the ECI received between 2000-2005 were either outdated or irreparable. Roy believed that most of the missing EVMs appear to be still in the ECI’s possession even if it has not been acknowledged as “received”.
Since the Karnataka assembly debate, senior Congress leaders have been raising their pitch to seek better clarity on the issue.
While I am usually wary of conspiracy theories, the mounting level of concerns about irregularities in the handling of EVMs requires a serious response from the Election Commission. The official confirmation of “missing EVMs” raises the obvious question, who has them & what for? pic.twitter.com/8lLblBXNlD
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) March 30, 2022
In recent municipally elections in Assam, many BJP party workers were spreading the propaganda that all EVM votes would go to BJP. The lack of transparency around the handling of EVMs create doubt in the minds of voters. https://t.co/k1d7Rl4GKE
— Gaurav Gogoi (@GauravGogoiAsm) March 30, 2022
In Karnataka, former speaker and senior Congress leader Priyank Kharge told The Print that as the IT minister, he had requested the EC to allow an ethical hackathon of EVMs by the subject experts but the request was turned down.
BJP leaders in the assembly like Arvind Bellad defended EVMs but Congress leaders retorted to say that only the EC should respond to the serious allegations and not the ruling party leaders.