Form 17 C data belongs to the public, must be released: Former CEC Dr. SY Quraishi and EC Ashok Lavasa to India Today

In a conversation with journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, former bureaucrats discussed the controversy over withholding voter turnout data by the ECI and hold that the ECI is responsible for the lack of trust in the electoral process

A crucial conversation took place yesterday between journalist Rajdeep Sardesai and Former Chief Election Commissioner Dr. SY Quraishi and former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa through which the former bureaucrats shed light on the whole issue of Form 17C and denial of information on voter turnout to the public. In an interview between the three, the opaque method of the working of the ECI and the lack of trust of the public on the poll panel was addressed.

On May 23, after the ECI affidavit opposing the demand for public disclosure of the copies of Form 17C within 48 hours of the conclusion of polling went public, many questions were raised against the anti-transparency stance being taken by the constitutional authority. In the said affidavit, which was filed on Supreme Court in response to a plea filed by Association for Democratic Reforms, the ECI had stated that citizens had no legal right to claim data provided in Form 17C, which contains the statutory record of votes polled in a polling station. The Election Commission of India also alleged that there was no legal mandate that required them to put out any such data, and the data being put forth by them through the Voter Turnout App is on a voluntary basis.

Details of the affidavit can be read here.

The affidavit sparked a widespread debate amongst civil society citizens, who questioned the opaque process being adopted by the ECI in releasing the final voter turnout data after the conclusion of the polls as well as the unusually high revision of over 5 per cent in the voter turnout after long durations. It is notable that even in the face of growing apprehensions of the citizenry and filing of petitions seeking judicial intervention for data, the current ECI had not once addressed the issues through any conference.

The aforementioned issues were put forth by Sardesai to the two former election commissioners during a live show on India Today.

Can Form 17 C be released in the public domain?

Speaking on the ongoing elections and the issues being raised, Dr. Quraishi stated that the current election is one of the biggest elections with 15 million eligible voters, but the same have been marred by two major controversies- the inaction of the ECI on violation of the Model Code of Conduct by politicians and the question of numbers. Expressing his viewpoint on the demand for public disclosure on the data on final voter turnout, Dr. Quraishi called the ECI’s attempt to withhold the release of number of voters to be totally meaningless as the data that was essential is already in the public domain in the sense that the presiding officer is required to hand over Form 17 C to the candidates after the conclusion of the polling. It was his opinion that when the information being sought by the people of India was already in the public domain, what was the harm in releasing it for the public’s view?

Questioning the secrecy being maintained by the current poll panel over data that is not sacrosanct in nature, Dr. Quraishi highlighted that the same exercise has happened in the past as well.

It was Lavasa’s opinion that the data being sought by the people is very elementary data. Agreeing with the points put forth by Dr. Quraishi, Lavasa stated that ECI, being the custodian of the data, is in a position to release the data by making it comprehensible to the people. On the question of the legal right of the citizens to know, Lavasa stated that Form 17 C is mandatorily signed by the presiding officer and given to the candidate, resulting in the data already being seen by the officer, the polling agents and the candidates. On ECI’s claim that if the data sought is released in the public might result in chaos, Lavasa emphasised that when such data was released earlier, it came with an explanation that the data provided in Form 17 C only contained the number of votes cast in that particular booth and there was no confusion or chaos then.

Are the fears being expressed by people unfounded?

Emphasising on the importance of building trust and ensuring people’s faith in the ECI and its working, Lavasa stated that it was for the ECI to understand that its functioning is not solely dependent on Rules and Laws. There are so many things that the ECI does to reach out to people, to make things convenient to people and to facilitate an understanding amongst the citizens of India. As per Lavasa, the entire initiative of SVEEP (Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation), the flagship program of the ECI for voter education, was brought in during Dr. Quraishi’s tenure not because the poll panel was legally required but as an effort to educate the voters and win their trust. Highlighting the same, Lavasa then questioned the insistent refusal of the ECI in disclosing the data to the public that is already there to ease some of the anxiety that the citizens are feeling and re-build their trust.

Adding to this, Dr. Quraishi also mentioned that the whole controversy was totally avoidable as the data is already in the public domain. He further stated that all this secrecy by the ECI is harming the trust of the people in this constitutional authority, and that the constitutional authority should release the data immediately as there was never a reason to withhold it. As per his statement, all the debates regarding the data being changed will be rendered useless when this Form 17 C data is released as the numbers in the said form is what the EVM holds.

Should people be suspicious over the delay in release of data and the unusually high revision numbers?

Responding to this question, Dr. Quraishi pointed out that confusion has been created with regards to the data and the ECI itself is responsible for the same. Holding that the data is being demanded belongs to the public and is already in the public domain, Dr. Quraishi expressed displeasure over the revised data not being released the same evening or by early the next morning.

During the conversation, Dr. Quraishi stated “The ECI’s argument that this data is to be kept secret- secret from whom? And why? There is no reason for the data to be changed after so many days.”

Explaining the process of how this data is being generated in real time, Dr. Quraishi also highlighted how the data on number of voters is released to the ECI every two hours, who then updates the percentage of voter turnout in its App. Based on the fact that data on the voter turnout is being released to the public during the whole day, Dr. Quraishi demanded to know why the same cannot be done on conclusion of the polls.

Dr. Quraishi also pointed out that during his tenure, there used to be a press conference at the end of the day where our polling officers would mention the provisional polling percentage and clarify that the final figure will be released after a certain amount of hours, but this practice has been discontinued now.

Responding to the aspect of revision of data after a delay of more than a week, Lavasa observed that a delay in such cases, and to such an extent, is bound to create doubt. Lavasa then opined that it was only through transparency that any doubts in the mind of the public can be answered.

As per Lavasa, even if any discrepancy occurs when the data is made public and people raise questions on it, the same can be sorted out by the ECI by being open with the people and offering them explanations.

The complete show can be viewed here:


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