In a surprise move, one of India’s top electronics public sector undertakings, Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), has refused to disclose details under the Right to Information (RTI) Act about Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter Verified Paper Trail (VVPAT), used by the Election Commission of India (ECI) for voting across India, stating that such a disclosure “would endanger the life of its engineers.”
Ironically, in June this year, the ECI took an identical view while refusing to disclose under the RTI Act details of the dissent notes of its Commissioner Ashok Lavasa on decisions pertaining to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches, which were alleged to have violated model code, saying it may “endanger the life or physical safety” of an individual.
Top RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, who is with the advocacy group Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), had sought information on EVM and VVPAT following “scanty information” about the manner in which polls were conducted across India in April-May 2019 general elections, which returned the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to power with a thumping majority.
Dissatisfied, says Nayak in an email alert to Counterview, several private citizens and mediapersons used RTI to seek information about voter turnout data mismatch, complaints about EVMs malfunctioning, complaints about mismatch of EVMs and VVPAT printouts, movement of EVMs and VVPATs to the electoral constituencies from the manufacturing companies, and details of action taken on complaints received against high profile politicians for violating the Model Code of Conduct.
After many of these requests were turned down by relevant public authorities, Nayak asserts, on June 17, 2019, he decided to file two identical RTI applications seeking information from BEL, as also the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL), the two manufacturers of the voting machines.
ECIL, says Nayak, “Uploaded some of this information on the RTI Online Facility but rejected access to some crucial bits of information sought in my RTI application”, but has not received “a formal reply from ECIL.”
As for BEL, Nayak says, initially, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of BEL “sent a fee intimation letter for Rs 1,434 for a total of 717 pages after almost a month”, agreeing to “supply most of the information”, even though denying “access to the VVPAT patent application filed with the Office of the Controller General of Patents by citing Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act.”
How could BEL say it did not have necessary information on EVMs, VVATs? Which papers did they count before sending the reply that information was contained in 717 pages?
The reply particularly said that the disclosure of information would “endanger the life or physical safety of engineers who carried out the assignment related to preparation of EVMs and VVPATs”, hence it was being “denied under section (8(1)(g) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
Wondering how could CPIO say that he did not have necessary information, asks Nayak, “Which papers did he count before sending the first reply?”, suspecting, the latest reply is “an afterthought arising out of pressure exerted – probably by an external agency against making this information public.”
Nayak says, refusal to part with information under the RTI Act runs counter to what the Union Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions said about the NDA government’s commitment to transparency while replying to the debate on the Bill to amend The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) in the Lok Sabha on July 22, 2019.
Referring to RTI, the minister claimed that the government “has been absolutely committed, as in other wings of governance, to ensure full transparency and full accountability”. Comments Nayak, “Sadly, this governance philosophy does not seem to have percolated downwards beyond the corridors of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with which the Union Minister is associated.”
Courtesy: Counter View