“Contracted engineers could leak information about the design of EVMs and VVPATs. They could also leak key information about the planning and conduct of elections. If a company feels that Suresh (name changed) has the knowledge and we can also manufacture EVMs, they will employ more such engineers, create a whole team, and start manufacturing EVMs. This would make the whole election process vulnerable.”Suresh (name changed), Fmr Contracted ECIL Engineer
That's the view of an engineer who worked on contract with ECIL or Electronics Corporation of India Limited, a Public Sector Unit or PSU, that manufactures EVM and VVPAT machines for the Election Commission or EC.
Speaking to The Quint on the condition of anonymity, he reveals how engaging private engineers poses serious security risks to India’s election process.
In August 2019, The Quint had shown how the EC had hired engineers on contract basis, to handle EVM and VVPAT machines for State Elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, through a private company - T&M Services Consulting Private Limited.
We also showed that T&M Services was not even empanelled by the EC to hire engineers on contract.
At that time the EC said,“ECIL has reconfirmed that they have not employed any engineers from outside.”
But the private engineer we spoke to, showed us his ECIL contract – we can see he was hired in November 2018 as Junior Technical officer, just before the 2019 General Elections.
“ECIL Prohibited Us From Revealing That We Were On Contract”
“We were trained a little bit by T&M workers who were diploma holders. They gave us demonstrations about EVMs and VVPATs. It was just basic training, how to fix the time on the control unit (CU), little bit about repairing the EVMs and VVPATs. Our maximum learning was while working on the ground.Suresh (name changed), Fmr Contracted ECIL Engineer
Suresh claims that almost all election work was done by contracted engineers and not by ECIL’s permanent employees. And yet, he and his colleagues were instructed by ECIL supervisors to hide the fact that they were working on contract.
“During training, ECIL told us less about the machines and more about how to present ourselves as ECIL employees in front of others. ECIL prohibited us from telling anyone that we were ‘on contract’. You can ask District Magistrates all over India, none of them may know that we worked on contract basis.”Suresh (name changed), Fmr Contracted ECIL Engineer
Errors In EVMs & VVPAT Machines Were Ignored
This was confirmed by another former contracted ECIL engineer, who also spoke to us on the condition of anonymity.
“Maybe the people at ECIL thought that Election duty officers might refuse to get jobs done from us because we were on contract.”Ashok (name changed), Fmr Contracted ECIL Engineer
Both engineers The Quint spoke to, worked on the 2019 General elections as well as the Jharkhand and Delhi Assembly elections.
Their first task before each election was the First Level Checking or FLC of the EVMs and VVPAT machines, that starts about 6 months before an election. But during the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, we were told, the First Level Checking was not done properly in a significant number of cases.
“During FLC it is mandatory for engineers to poll 96 votes. Sometimes it so happened (during FLC by T&M engineers) that they okayed EVM-VVPAT machines after punching just 75 votes. 96 Votes should be punched into the EVM-VVPATs during FLC. They ignored other errors in the machines too and approved them.”Ashok (name changed), Fmr Contracted ECIL Engineer
During the FLC, the EVM and VVPAT machines are supposed to be checked thoroughly. If faulty machines are not identified and repaired or set aside, there is a much higher rate of EVM-VVPAT malfunction during polling.
‘Don’t Know Why Contract Was Not Extended’
After getting an extension in November 2019, both engineers we spoke to had their contracts terminated in May 2020 along with 187 others.
“I don’t know why they didn’t extend my contract. We were told that ECIL had no further projects, so we could not be retained. As the government had lifted the lockdown, we were told that we were now free to go and look for other jobs.”Suresh (name changed), Fmr Contracted ECIL Engineer
And yet, a week after their termination, ECIL had put up a recruitment advertisement looking for engineers once again.
Reporter: Are the new recruits experienced?
Suresh: No experience ma’am. In the advertisement they had posted that they want one year experience from any industry. But they don’t follow that procedure. There were many ‘freshers’ during my time also.
Reporter - Will the new trainees also get just 1-2 days of training?
Yes, the same basic training - this is the Control Unit, this is the Ballot Unit, this is the VVPAT, etc. And also, if asked, to not tell the administration that you are on contract, always say you are permanent.
Questioning their termination, the engineers even point to a statement by the Chief Electoral Officer for the Delhi Elections, saying VVPAT machine failure had come down from 12.5% on the Lok Sabha elections to less than 1% in the Delhi elections, underlining their good performance.
So, here are the unanswered questions:
- Why is the Election Commission of India misleading everyone including the Supreme Court by saying that only authorised engineers are deployed for election duty?
- Why doesn’t the EC accept that they hire engineers on short-term contracts?
- Even as the EC refuses to divulge the design of EVM & VVPAT machines citing National Security, why are poorly vetted contracted engineers given full access to these machines?
In response to The Quint's questions, the EC has passed the buck on to ECIL saying, "The recruitment, retention, or termination of any of these engineers, as well as any other staff engaged in production or repairs, is the sole prerogative of ECIL & BIL. All required measures are taken by the two companies to ensure that EVMs remain 100% secure."
We have also asked ECIL why they terminated the contract of around 187 experienced engineers, and then advertised for fresh recruits? We will update the article when we get a reply.