The Election Commission of India (ECI) had mandated real-time GPS tracking of all vehicles transporting Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).
However, a day before the election results were declared, the Commission in response to an RTI query, said it has no information in “any material form” related to the GPS data and movement of these vehicles.
The ECI’s response that GPS related “information is not available” raises questions, especially since Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora had specifically mentioned GPS as part of new stringent measures to increase security of EVMs.
On 10 March, at a press conference to announce the dates for Lok Sabha Elections 2019, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora had specified:
“New fresh SOPs (standard operating procedure) have been issued for making the last mile transportation of even the reserve EVMs very, very stringent and rigid including the monitoring by GPS etc.”Sunil Arora, Chief Election Commissioner
These preparations assume greater significance given that in the days preceding vote counting on 23 May a number of reports regarding the movement and storage of EVMs had emerged.
These included reports of six EVMs being found in a hotel room in Bihar on 7 May.
RTI Query on GPS Data Denied
An RTI query to the Public Information Officer of the ECI had requested “A digital copy of GPS data of vehicles employed to transfer Electronic Voting Machines during the lok Sabha elections of 2019.”
However, in a reply to the RTI , the EC responded saying “The information is not available in any material form, hence, the same may not be provided under Section 2(f) of the Right to Information Act 2005.”
Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi told The Quint that since the ECI issued such an order, the Chief Electoral Officers of states have to submit a report on its implementation.
“For EC to wash its hands off does not seem right. They issued detailed instructions to Chief Electoral Officers (CEO) and District Electoral Officers (DEO) then they must be getting a report.”S. Y. Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner
Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, 2005 defines “information” as “any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form.”
The EC’s response, therefore, implies that it does not possess any GPS data of vehicles either in physical or digital form.
Why GPS Tracking of EVMs?
Global Positioning System is a satellite navigation system used to determine the ground position of an object. Cab-hailing apps like Uber and Ola, food delivery apps like Swiggy and maps in our smartphones like Google Maps all leverage GPS technology to determine the position of an individual or vehicle.
CEC Sunil Arora, during his press conference on 10 March, said that GPS was included as a security enhancement measure after “four or five anecdotal incidents” from the Assembly Elections of November- December 2018 when five states went to polls.
A number of incidents were reported from Madhya Pradesh about EVM mishandling. The state voted on 28 November. Among the major controversies were incidents like:
- EVMs allegedly reached the collection centre in Sagar a full 48-hours after polling ended. The EVMs had arrived from Khurai constituency in a school bus without a number plate.
- In a separate incident, a viral video showed a poll officer with two EVMs in a hotel room in MP’s Shajapur District on the eve of polling.
The installation of a GPS device can, therefore, reign in such incidents because the precise movement, including starting point and destination, of EVM ferrying vehicles can be be tracked in real-time.
EC’s Orders Included 24/7 GPS Tracking
At least two documents circulated by the ECI among Chief Electoral Officers of states in February ordered “real time tracking and monitoring of the movement of EVMs and VVPATs through the GPS-enabled/Mobile App”. This includes EVMs for polling as well as reserve EVMs.
A perusal of ECI’s letters, dated 5 and 7 February, to CEOs of states reveal detailed and robust instructions about vehicles ferrying EVM units including Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines.
Some of the specific instructions about monitoring GPS-fitted vehicles include:
- Real time tracking and monitoring of the movement of EVMs and VVPATS through GPS-enabled mobile app.
- Setting up of a 24*7 ‘EVM Control Room’ to track the movement of vehicles as well as well as appointing an official in each vehicle to coordinate with officers.
- Adequate Personnel to be deployed in the ‘EVM Control Room’ “on a shift basis for round-the-clock monitoring of of EVMs/ VVPAT monitoring in the states/UT concerned”.
- One official to be appointed with each vehicle that carries EVMs/VVPATs and their mobile number to be shared with officers of all the states through which the vehicles are scheduled to pass.
Who is Responsible for GPS Tracking ?
ECI’s letter provides unambiguous instructions regarding the implementation and monitoring.
The letter dated 5 February, 2019 - marked to chief electoral officers (CEO) of all the states and union territories - states:
“DEO (District Electoral Officer) shall be responsible for the effective end-to-end GPS based tracking and monitoring of EVM and VVPAT movement in the district, including the reserve EVM and VVPAT and ensure compliance of these instructions.”ECI letter (51/8/INST/2019 - EMPS) - 5 February
Quraishi explains the chain of command regarding the implementation of an order such as end-to-end GPS tracking of vehicles. “Once the Election Commission has issued instructions the CEO takes charge. The CEO will then ask the DEO. At the operative level DEOs will install the GPS,” said Quraishi.
“Now, the answers lie at the grassroots level but a report must be submitted to the ECI. to say that they have no information, how can this be acceptable?” he added.
The Quint has sent a questionnaire to the ECI as well as contacted officers and is awaiting a response to its queries. The story will be updated as and when it receives a comment.