JALANDHAR, Punjab — In Godrej almirahs, on shelves in forgotten storerooms, and in kitchen cabinets in private homes of government school teachers, are dusty electoral lists of millions of voter identity cards with their corresponding Aadhaar numbers carefully scribbled down by hand.
These printouts, linking two extremely sensitive personal identity numbers, are the remnants of the 2015 National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP), the Election Commission of India’s (ECI’s) controversial drive to use Aadhaar-related software developed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to ostensibly weed out so-called duplicate entries in India’s voter rolls by flagging these names for deletion.
The project ran till August 2015, when it was curtailed by the Supreme Court as it was still adjudicating the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.
Interviews with serving and retired election officials in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, and a review of hundreds of pages of internal documentation reveal how the ECI and UIDAI sought to use Aadhaar-linked biometric authentication, and unproved algorithms, to toy with the most fundamental right of any citizen in a democracy — the right to vote.
The documents show how Aadhaar-related technology, particularly data-sorting algorithms, have permeated some of the most fundamental aspects of civic life in India without any public discussion about its efficacy, or the risks involved. Rather than create transparency and accountability, the UIDAI’s software has had the opposite effect — where senior government officers defer their judgement to software which they barely understand.
In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, two states that served as a template for a wider, national roll-out in February 2015, election officials admit that software could have played a role in the elimination of 2.2 million voters from Telangana’s electoral rolls.
“A new software has been put in place as well and there could be other reasons also behind the deletion of names,” Telangana chief electoral officer Rajat Kumar told a press conference, as reported by Mint, in September this year. “There are people living here who have chosen to exercise their voting rights in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. There could be multiple reasons.”
The issue of so-called missing voters has since animated political parties, with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal going as far as to suggest that the Bharatiya Janta Party has deliberately sought to suppress voting of those opposed to the BJP.
On 27 November this year, the Madras High Court will hear a petition asking for the ECI to link voter cards to Aadhaar numbers. The poll body has indicated that it will not oppose the petition, paving the way for the revival of the project.
Yet the roll-out of electoral roll purification programme, and its aftermath, raise questions of whether such an exercise should be attempted at all. If the ECI’s launch of the programme in February 2015 was poorly conceived, its conduct when the project was halted in August 2015 was marked by rank incompetence.
Rather than secure the private and confidential data of the 350 million Indians it had already collected, the Commission left it to individual officers and departments to do what they saw fit with the information.
In Punjab, HuffPost India found that many booth-level officers simply locked the printouts and Aadhaar numbers in the safest place they could think of— their office almirahs and their homes. In at least one case, HuffPost India found the Aadhaar numbers stored in the kitchen cabinet of a government school teacher, deputed to the election commission, who was worried that the files might get lost at her office.
In another case, a teacher handed over his data to the office of the sub-divisional magistrate, but kept a copy for himself. HuffPost India has reviewed these aadhaar-linked voter rolls, but is not reproducing them here to protect the privacy and sanctity of the electoral rolls.
“You never know when the file gets lost,” the official told HuffPost India. “The ECI may ask for it again. Since the process was so tedious, we cannot afford to repeat it again.”
The ad hocism of the exercise was so extreme that when the Supreme Court asked all seeding projects to be halted, the ECI was confronted with having printed millions of voter-enrollment forms that asked for Aadhaar numbers to complete the voter registration process.
On 17 August 2015, the ECI came up with a high-tech solution to the problem.
“To avoid wastage of paper, existing stocks of the forms and BLO registers with Aadhaar numbers shall be used by removing Aadhaar field by hand or by blackening it with black sketch pen,” the ECI circular read.
Needless to say, very few officers took up the arduous task of manually blacking out the Aadhaar field. As a consequence, enrollment officers told HuffPost India, Aadhaar numbers of voters continued to be collected well after the project was halted.
The ECI has not responded to repeated emailed inquiries sent by HuffPost India. The Commission has also declined to disclose how many voter ids have been linked to Aadhaar numbers, claiming it does not know, in response to a Right to Information request filed by Medianama.
AN IRRESPONSIBLE EXERCISE
The UIDAI, two former Chief Election Commissioners told HuffPost India, had long lobbied to link voter IDs and Aadhaar cards as a means to illustrate the value of the controversial project.
“They said we should integrate Aadhaar with electoral rolls to eliminate duplicates,” said a former Chief Election Commissioner, seeking anonymity to speak freely. “The Commission held the view that we should hold off until we fully understand the implications.”
“It was during a meeting with (Nandan) Nilekani , we agreed to link voters card with the Aadhaar numbers,” SY Quraishi, another former election commissioner, agreed. Nilekani is the architect and a vocal cheerleader of the Aadhaar project.
Quraishi insisted that the decision was taken by the ECI, but it is pertinent to note that such a significant decision, with the potential to strip disenfranchise millions of voters, was taken with little public deliberation,
HuffPost India has reached out to Nilekani for comment, and will update the if he responds.
The ECI’s reluctance, the former Commissioner who sought anonymity revealed, stemmed from the fact that there is no one official unified national electoral roll of India. Rather, each state keeps its own voter rolls.
“Each state Election Commission is the custodian of the rolls for that particular state,” he said, admitted that this allowed for voters to have more than one voter card, “but removing duplicates is a sensitive exercise to be done with caution.”
The ECI cannot share voter data—in a manipulable form—with any other body. Hence, Commission officials worried that seeding voter ids would mean sharing the data with the UIDAI.
In 2015, HS Brahma became the Chief Election Commissioner. Brahma was the CEC for barely three months, but made it a priority to push through the seeding process.
“Brahma wanted to leave a mark, he pushed very hard for the process,” the former Chief Election Commissioner said.
“It was always meant to be voluntary,” Brahma told Scroll.in in a recent interview. “Campaigns were organised across the country and state election commissions were roped in for the purpose. The message had to be delivered to common people about how the initiative would help weed out bogus voters and strengthen democracy.” Read More>>>