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Indian democracy depends on EVM reliability

Chennai: India, a nation of more than a billion people, is the largest democracy in the world. Founding fathers envisaged India as a secular, multi party democracy based on universal adult franchise. To this end, periodic elections are held by an autonomous institution Election Commission of India (EC) set up under constitutional mandate. Over a period of time as the democracy matured in India, because of its vast population and rich diversity, numerous political parties sprang up on regional, linguistic, religious and community lines. As per EC data, a total of 363 parties have contested in 2009 general elections (national elections). This translated into 8070 candidates contesting for 543 Lok Sabha (lower house of the parliament) seats.

Because of the magnitude of these exercises, holding elections was becoming increasingly costly and difficult. In 1996 general elections a total of 8000 tons of paper (for ballot) was used. In 1999, 7,700 tons was used. To address this issue, EC in collaboration with two public sector companies, Bharat Electronics Limited, Bangalore and Electronic Corporation of India, Hyderabad developed Electronic Voting Machines (EVM). EVMs were first tested in 50 polling stations of Parur assembly constituency, in Kerala, in 1982 by-elections. Later in 1989, 90 EVMs were used in 16 assembly constituencies in three states.

In 1999 elections EVMs were used in larger proportion as compared with 1996 Elections (that’s why the usage of paper is reduced from 8000 tons in 1996 to 7700 in 1999) and in 2004 election, paper ballot was done away with, and EVMs were used for the whole process. According to the EC’s claim using EVMs has brought down the cost of holding the elections along with reducing the amount of time it takes for declaring the results.

According to the website India-elections.com EVMs are tamper-proof, stand alone units that are highly reliable. Though this claim is supported by EC, various activist groups hotly contest it. In Apr 2010 an independent researcher Hari K Prasad of NetIndia, (P) Ltd., Hyderabad along with Alex J Halderman of University of Michigan and Ropp Gonggrip a hacker from Holland, claimed that EVMs are not tamper-proof. His claim was based on his research conducted on an EVM procured clandestinely (since EVMs are under the custody of EC and access to them is not possible without EC’s permission).

While EC denied Hari Prasad’s claim, he was arrested in Aug 2010 on the grounds that he stole government property. The then Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla claimed that the findings by Hari Prasad are not reliable. While delivering a lecture in Asian College of Journalism in Nov 2010 , Chawla claimed that EVMs are tamper-proof. He said that no one could prove before EC that EVMs can be manipulated. He contended that from the beginning of the electoral process to the time election results are declared, EVMs are held under strict vigil of the EC and security forces. So there is no possibility of any person/ organization confiscating the EVMs and manipulating the results. If no one could prove that EVMs can be tampered with, in the presence of EC, how the results can be manipulated, he argues. On the question of whether EVMs can be preloaded before elections, he says that since no commercial software is used in EVMs and since the manufacturing of these units is undertaken by public sector companies and embedded chipsets are used, preloading is impossible.

2004 general elections are a turning point for the Indian election scenario. A total of 5398 candidates contested the elections and about 39 crore votes were polled. This gigantic electoral process was held in four rounds spanning three weeks using 10.25 lakh EVMs. But because of the EVMs the poll results were declared in just one day whereas it used to take more time when elections were paper based. The total amount of paper saved in the process is estimated to be around 8000 metric ton.

There were other benefits of EVMs. Booth capturing, an endemic problem in Indian elections is virtually eliminated as EVMs are configured to register only five votes per minute. Earlier in ballot paper elections, miscreants used to capture a poll booth and stuff ballot boxes with votes in favour of their candidate. This whole exercise used to take a very small amount of time, and they could flee the booth before police reinforcements arrived. But because of the EVMs only 150 votes can be cast in half an hour, this discourages booth capturing practices.

Another benefit of EVMs is that it reduces the incidence of invalid votes. In paper ballots, a voter had to stamp his vote on the symbol of the candidate he favoured. Many a times voters used to fold the paper in a wrong pattern, inadvertently marking two candidates, resulting in disqualification. This possibility is eliminated in the EVMs as a voter has to just press a button and the vote would register. Since the display on the EVMs is quite prominent it is also easier for an illiterate voter to easily choose his candidate .

These benefits of using EVMs have attracted attention of the Election Commissions world over, who are looking forward to introduce these machines in their countries. While at the same time this issue has also attracted serious objections from activists and academics. In Aug 2010 condemning the arrest of Hari Prasad, a group of IT experts from US claimed that EVMs are (like any other software embedded devices) not tamper proof and requested EC not to use them. They argue that the future of Indian democracy depends on the issue of EVM’s safety and the surety that they cannot be tampered with.

Even national parties like BJP have expressed their concern about the reliability of the EVMs. BJP has constituted a committee of its own to look into the allegations made by various groups, and ascertain reliability of these machines.

The success of the democratic process in the country depends on the faith that voters have in the process of elections and EC’s role as a fair referee. With the allegations flowing in thick and fast from the various quarters and EC’s persistent denial that EVMs can be manipulated, the faith of the common voters in the very process of Indian elections is at stake. To ensure that the democratic practices developed overtime in India are maintained, EC should help resolve the issue, rather than adopting a belligerent posture of denial.

Meanwhile the debate on utilising technology in the world’s biggest democratic process continues.

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Bonded Labour – Slavery without chains

I entered the small photo exhibition organised by International Justice Mission (IJM) as a sceptical man. I was of the impression that IJM is any other NGO trying to showcase their work, and I have to attend this exhibition regardless, as a part of my assignment. But my misgivings started to evaporate as I stepped into the hall.

The stories that those photos spoke were straightforward. As a Chinese proverb goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, the candid photographs shown there, were quite evocative. Simple captions written by Belinda Liu, a volunteer working with IJM, conveyed without much ado one stark truth, “Bonded labour does not just exist in India, it is perpetrated with impunity.” As we go through photo after photo a single theme runs through them, the sufferings and brutality these unfortunate victims face at the hands of their cruel masters. Almost all of them are victims of their own innocence and illiteracy, and the modus operandi in enslaving them is always same. They are first enticed to take a loan, some times as paltry as Rs. 200, and in few months this amount is inflated to exorbitant levels with unreasonably high interest rates. Then these gullible people are convinced that they owe huge amounts of money to the lender and to clear this debt they have to work for the lender, almost always for free. As explained by the Community Relations Manager of IJM, Kural Amuthan, most of the victims of bonded labour are people from lesser privileged communities, like those from scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST) and other indigenous tribal communities. He says that according to a government survey 86.6 per cent of the bonded labourers, throughout the nation, belong to the SC and ST communities and almost all the victims are illiterate.

The case of Jayaram* (55) is one such. He was induced to take a loan of Rs. 200 in his need, and was enslaved every since. He was given a daily salary of six rupees and was forced to work for 12 to 16 hours a day. When he protested, he was cruelly punished by puncturing his knee with a needle, used to stitch beige bags, along with abusive words reminding him his caste status. He was rescued by IJM and along with his wife he runs a small shop in his village. The case of Chinnamma* (52) is even more deplorable. Her request for a leave, of one day, from a rice mill in Kanchipuram to attend her blind husband’s funeral in her village, was denied by her master who said that there is no need for her to go and that; others will ‘dispose off’ his body. She too was rescued by IJM.

IJM was founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen, to combat the evils of bonded labour, slavery and human trafficking. Kural explained that, since it started its work in India IJM is more active in South India with Chennai and Bangalore as their centres where they tackle mainly the issue of bonded labour and slavery. They also have offices in Mumbai and Kolkata which are actively involved in tackling female trafficking. Kural also explains how IJM helps local authorities in finding and setting bonded labour free. He said that once a labourer is freed from the clutches of this cruel situation he is given a release certificate by Revenue Division Officer and are given a sum of Rs. 20,000/- as a part of financial assistance for their rehabilitation. All this is done under, Bonded labour system (Abolition) Act of 1976. IJM does not limit its activity to freeing the victims; it also takes care of the recently freed bonded labourers by way of training them and settling them into gainful ventures so that they can lead a fruitful and dignified life. This constant monitoring is maintained for the duration of two years.

Karul also explained, citing the case of Arjun* (a third generation bonded labourer born into the slavery and trying to repay a debt of Rs.20 that his grand father took during a famine. He still had to pay Rs.20,000 when he was freed) that since these people spent a lot of time under strict supervision and suppression, they do not have enough psychological stability and are not ready to take care of their own lives. They have to be gradually educated and their fear of mingling with others removed. They also need assistance to make a habit of taking individual decisions, which normal citizens take for granted, with out hesitation.

Belinda Liu, with her few months of experience in India, expresses her dismay at the complete lack of awareness in the labourers and their children (who are never allowed to read or go to school) that they are being deprived of their basic rights. This also shows how morally deprived the slave masters are and the requirement for public as such to address this issue, she says.

The photograph depicting Radha* (8) running towards the IJM activists and away from work, gives a picture of what that little soul thinks of freedom that awaits her. Also the picture of a smiling Jayaram and his wife standing before their own shop, setup with government assistance, conveys the message that words can hardly capture.

* Names of victims are changed and pictures are not uploaded to  respect their privacy.

Roads on Stilts: exploiting an ambiguous CRZ notification

Chennai: Selvi, 35, who ekes out a meager living by selling milk to the residents of Besant Nagar, feels threatened by the proposed elevated expressway from Chennai’s Marina Beach to Kottivakkam. Her fear is that the proposed road will force her to vacate her house, which is in the slum on the fringes of the Eliot’s beach, and complains that there is no proper rehabilitation plan in the sight.

This elevated expressway also faced opposition from various social groups. The shop owners and residents of Besant Nagar complain that because of this project, sound and air pollution will increase. Apart from pollution, Sanjeevan Suryanarayanan, who owns a garment shop on the beach, is apprehensive that real estate prices will fall drastically, as the beach front property will be devalued due to the disturbance created by vehicles, plying on the road throughout the day.

Another notable community that opposes the proposal consists of environmental activists. Siddharth, an active member of ‘Reclaim our Beaches’ (ROB), says that this project threatens the fragile estuarine ecosystem along with the endangered Olive Riddle Turtles which migrate annually to Chennai’s beaches. He is of the opinion that the main benefactors of this venture are the ones who can afford to buy a four-wheeler, as public transport will not be allowed on the road. With a construction of this magnitude, which hugs the seashore, the process of the construction is bound to pollute the sea, and the migrant workers who have to camp on the beaches, will only aggravate the situation to the detriment of the environment. “With the track record of Chennai authorities in constructing mega projects, we can safely assume that this project will wreak havoc to the fragile ecology for five to ten years at least” he laments.

Vaishnavi, of ‘Transparent Chennai’ says that the major source of the problem in this issue is the lack of clarity in the existing regulations. The present guidelines which are published under Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) notification in the Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part-II, Section 3, Sub-section (ii) of dated the September 15, 2010, does not help clarify the issue. The exemption provided in the notification says that ‘Roads on Stilts’ can be allowed to be built in the CRZ area. The initial exemption was incorporated by the policy makers to allow roads on stilts to avoid disturbing/ destruction of mangroves. But since the regulation is not specific about the exemption, it is being misinterpreted.

The problem of lack of clarity is endemic to the CRZ notification since its inception in 1991. Since the guidelines are only published in the Gazetteof India, and not enacted as a law, there was hardly any discussion on the subject. Manju Menon with her co-authors, in an article in Economic and Political Weekly, says that even though the 1991 notification was welcomed by all the stakeholders, lack of administrative will and pre-occupation with economic reforms resulted in government neglecting the implementation of this notification in good faith. This lack of clarity resulted in a flurry of public interest litigations in various courts.

The Supreme Court in an Order dated April 19, 1993 in Writ Petition No.664 of 1993, directed the Central Government and the coastal States that ‘there is 6000 km long coastline of India and it is the responsibility of coastal States and Union territories in which these stretches exists to see that both the notifications are compiled with and enforced.’ This and various legal litigations forced government to amend the notification time and again along with the setting up of various committees which finally resulted in Draft CRZ 2010 notification. But Menon in her article says, “…. The notification is misleading since the Swaminathan Committee report (on which the present notification relies heavily) is not a widely accepted document devoid of controversy. It falls short on several counts and the absence of citizen participation in its drafting has been a serious concern since its objectives have far-reaching implications. Pro-industry influences are evident in the Swaminathan Committee report.”

When contacted by this correspondent about the proposed elevated expressway, a deputy director in Department of Environment, Governmentof Tamilnadu, was reluctant to identify himself, but shared some information off-the-record. He said that his department did not receive any proposal to build an elevated expressway, nor was any clearance ever granted. Instead, he said that a 169 km circular road, parts of which are elevated and would cover the land falling under CRZ, covering Chennai is under consideration.  He was of the view that it is highly impractical to refuse development projects on the grounds of ecological considerations, particularly in Chennai and that there has to be a balance between both public welfare and ecological concerns.

But the problem of uncertainty in the notification still exists. The information that there was no expressway proposal, as conveyed by the official, on the one hand and the misinformed activists on the other, shows the lack of clear dialog between government and the stake holders. With increasing population, the pressure on the natural resources is bound to increase. Enacting a law by the central government after wider consultation and citizen participation, may remove the ambiguity and potential conflict between various stake-holders, resulting in better management of the fragile ecology.

Parking hassles in Mylapore Chennai

As a part of our project, along with my team mate Nihar Amol Gokhale, I tried to capture the real and chaotic road condition in busy shopping street of  Mylapore, Chennai. This was also our first experiment with flip camera and video editing process.

Grim Politics of Hunger- Food Security in India, Part – 2

Nemmani Sreedhar

Chennai: In my previous post on the same topic, I provided a brief background for the ongoing debate. National Advisory Committee’s (NAC) proposals for the

A food grains vendor in Hyderabad

Food Security Bill, envisaged supply of 35 kg of food grains at subsidised prices for 75 per cent of the population (nearly 800 million people) and 20 kg for the remaining 25 per cent of the population. But the draft bill that was cleared by Empowered Group of Ministers (eGoM) for cabinet consideration led to serious debate. The problem was solved by a compromise between the NAC and government. Government retained some of the proposals by NAC, and NAC in its turn, owing largely to drop in food grain production, accepted pruned draft bill. With this India is set to become the first country in the world to enact legislation that gives a guarantee of food grain supply to people in Below Poverty Line (BPL) families, but bill has its detractors.

NAC council member and development economist Jean Drèze issued a dissent note saying that “an opportunity [had] been missed to initiate a radical departure in this field.” Dr. Drèze who played a critical role in the formulation of two of NAC’s most important programmes — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the path-breaking Right to Information Act—said, “The NAC began its deliberations on a visionary note, but later came under a lot of pressure to accommodate constraints imposed by the government.” The final result, he says, is “a minimalist proposal that misses many important elements of food security.” Neelabh Mishra, in an opinion piece in Outlook objects to the wording of the bill. His objection pertains to a passage in the draft bill: “The definition of food security should be limited to the specific issue of food grains security (wheat and rice) and be delinked from the larger issue of nutritional security.” He says that 33 percent of Indians have Body Mass Index (BMI) less than 18.5 and barely misses 40 percent benchmark according to which WHO considers a society to be famine affected. Mishra argues that the proposed draft bill is fundamentally flawed and falls short of expectations and requirements.

Criticism of the Draft bill and NAC’s proposal is not restricted to the food grain entitlement alone. The mode of delivery also came under sharp attack. Whereas the NAC proposed a greater role for PDS, in a paper circulated within the government, Chief Economic Adviser to the Finance Ministry Kaushik Basu has argued that, the need of the hour is a reduced role for the Food Corporation of India, winding up of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and interventions in the food market. He refers to a study that currently 70% of wheat under BPL does not reach beneficiaries.

His contention is reinforced by Justice Wadhwa Committee, appointed by Supreme Court of India, which concluded that PDS is corrupt, inefficient and a majority of the poor people do not have BPL cards. As a solution, Basu says that instead of the reliance on PDS, food coupons could be given to adult woman members of a household, to ensure that food grains reach family members in a more reliable manner. The food coupon system could be dovetailed into the Unique Identity Number (UID) or Aadhaar system and eventually coupons could be replaced by smart cards linked to a mobile banking system.

His idea may have been inspired by American system of food coupons, but with a Gini co-efficient (which measures the inequality of wealth distribution in a country) higher than India can American system be taken as a role model is a question that needs to be answered. With the doubts that are being expressed about UID scheme it will be worthwhile for government to consider all issues in a comprehensive manner and arrive at a solution to alleviate hunger in the country, rather than resort to some ad hoc measures for temporary political gains.

Grim Politics of Hunger: Food Security in India

Nemmani Sreedhar

Chennai: India, the land of paradoxes, has yet another paradox in its long list. But this one is not pleasant; government does not advertise it for tourism development. It could as well have swept this issue under the carpet, and pretend that it never existed. The paradox, of ‘Huge stock of food grains rotting in government controlled Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) warehouses while masses of poor people go to sleep hungry,’ represents the soft underbelly of the thriving economy, slated to grow at 9% or more annually. According to an estimate, a staggering 25 percentage of people in India (with a population of 1.173 billion) go hungry everyday.

Challenging this insensitivity on government’s part, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan held a petition in the Supreme Court (SC) in April 2001 (PUCL Vs Union of India and Others, Writ Petition [Civil] 196 of 2001), demanding that ‘the country’s gigantic food stocks should be used without delay to protect people from hunger and starvation.’ This writ petition led to series of prolonged public interest litigation, and after may other petitions concerning corruption in Public Distribution System (PDS) and other food security related issues, SC on 31 Aug 2010 gave a directive to the Ministry of Agriculture, that rotting grains be given freely to the poor people. Reacting to the directive, Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh said, “The government will do all it can to provide affordable food to those below the poverty line but cannot implement the Supreme Court’s order to give free food grains to the poor,” and advised SC not to enter into ‘the realm of policy formulation.’ PM’s response triggered a huge outcry from the public as well as media, blaming the government for skirting its responsibilities and as being insensitive to the plight of poor people.

Judicial activism apart, owing to the sensitivity of the issue, United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) National Advisory Committee (NAC) headed by Sonia Gandhi decided to work out the feasibility of utilizing the vast food grain stock amassed at the FCI warehouses to address the issue of hunger. It also sent a draft Food Security bill to Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as early as June 2009, but the bill that was approved by the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) failed to meet the expectations of not only people but also NAC Chairperson. With this a huge debate started between Government of India and NAC, along with debates in the public sphere. The proposals that the NAC had put forward were termed infeasible by the Government. Even Planning Commission along with government said, (to name an example) that no legal guarantees can be give to people in above poverty line (APL) regarding food security. But the grim reality of the food security debate is that with all this legal and political wrangling, the fate of poor people is still precarious. The pace at which Indian government moves during the course of taking a critical decision is well known. We can only hope that good sense prevails in the government for the benefit of poor people.

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