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Man and Machine – the love hate game

Man and Machine – the love hate game
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The results of the elections to the urban local bodies and Panchayati Raj Institutions are out in Uttar Pradesh. The ruling BJP has performed well in...

The results of the elections to the urban local bodies and Panchayati Raj Institutions are out in Uttar Pradesh. The ruling BJP has performed well in the cities. But in the towns and villages, with an electorate of three and half crores, it appears not to have done so well. Independents had the upper hand there. Why this setback? Did the rural voters, comprising largely of unorganized labour and petty traders, express their dissatisfaction with experiments such as demonetization and GST?

Even while this analysis was going on, Mayawati has concluded that the ruling party is securing victories by tampering with the EVMs (Electronic Voting Machine), where they are used, while their performance was bad where ballot boxes are used. And in quick agreement is Akhilesh Yadav. Therefore, they argue, elections in the future should always be through the use of the ballot paper abandoning EVM.

It has to be noted that they have illustrious company. Arvind Kejriwal, who came into the limelight through modern platforms like social media and the internet, is also opposing the use of EVMs. Even Chandrababu Naidu, with whom ‘Next Generation’ and ‘high-tech’ are buzzwords, has opposed them and advocated reversal to ballot box. And this, despite having exhorted people about the need to be computer-savvy, and he being the Chairman of the Digitization Committee of the Government of India.

I am by no means prepared to certify that EVMs are tamper-proof. I have no pretenses to such technical credentials. I know enough that, if there is any glitch in any software and hardware with any instrument I am using, I can get it attended to. I would, therefore, understand if these leaders were to seek rectification of the faults, if any, in the EVMs, or offer to get them set right by their own experts. To oppose their use altogether, however, is something I am unable to comprehend. That is like, to use a cliché, throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

For that matter, is the ballot method free of complaints? Were there no grievances of misuse of ballot papers and boxes when they were used earlier? When Indira Gandhi won the 1972 Parliamentary elections, Balraj Madhok (former President of Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP) made an allegation, (which was never proved), that invisible Russian ink was used to mark the symbol of the Congress (I) beforehand.

Many malpractices were in vogue during ballot days, including the pouring of ink or water into ballot boxes. Ballot boxes were sometimes exchanged or even carried away. And there were instances of booth-capturing and rigging. Threats to polling personnel were also quite common. As there was insufficiency of security forces on account of the short gap between the polling dates, officials were constantly under fear of what the local people might do to them.

I must make a mention, in this connection, about the elections in 1997 in Madhepura Parliamentary Constituency - during which I had the opportunity of serving as an Observer of the Election Commission of India. The two stalwarts of that area, Lalu Yadav and Sharad Yadav, were locked in contest there. That part of Bihar was, deservedly or otherwise, regarded as an area where regulation was rather lax in several spheres, including elections. Despite having been warned about that, I was certainly surprised when, after the polls and during the counting process, the staff wanted breaks! And, when the election counting carried on into the late hours, they wanted to go home and come back the next day, unheard of in other parts of country!

What I am getting at is that, undoubtedly, while mechanisation has its plus points, they also entail many difficulties and inconveniences. If the server fails, one is helpless. In the days of the manual system, one could have got work done somehow or the other. Our leaders try to make us believe automation is a must, though it causes alarming unemployment. This claim is made even while electricity, internet, cell phone signals are eluding many parts of the country. While our leaders chant the IT mantra for everything, many rudimentary sectors have been ignored. These strong advocates of mechanisation speak in a different tone when it comes to EVMs.

I am personally of the view that computerisation is essential. The question is one of where. When a large amount of data is involved, or a complicated analysis, involving many variables, has to be undertaken, it is absolutely essential. But it should stop when it attempts merely to replace man. As Gandhiji said, machines should help man to reduce workload, not replace him.

In the Indian Railways, for instance, computers can be used with advantage in planning and executing complicated plans relating to freight and passenger movement, but can be avoided in the booking of tickets, which can be done by human beings. In automated flying of aircraft, building and using weather–forecasting models or estimates of possible damage on account of imminent disasters, computers are irreplaceable. But should they be used for issuing electricity or water bills? I think not.

While on the subject, I recall my experiences in two State government postings. While working as Deputy Commissioner Commercial Taxes in 1974 at Vishakhapatnam, I had adopted the A, B, C approach to the examination of the accounts of the various assesses in my area, to sift the chaff from the grain. Those who contributed substantially to the number, but paid little by way of tax, formed the A group, the small number of those who contributed large chunks of tax were put in the C group and the rest in the middle group, that is B. The analysis quickly yielded a focus following which I was able to a) relieve the small traders from undue harassment by conducting summary assessments in respect of their returns,
b) focus on the big assesses and pay greater attention to them, and
c) leave the rest of the assessments to the department, to be attended in the normal course.
Encouraged by the attractive dividend this approach yielded, I used it again as Commissioner, Urban Land Ceilings in 1976 in Hyderabad, where I had to deal with about 15,000 declarations under a newly introduced enactment.

In both the cases, it would have been both difficult and impractical to have done the analysis manually. Computers came in handy for decision-making. This kind of an exercise can clearly not be done at the state or national levels, without the aid of computers. So telling were the instances that I was able to present them in the shape of a paper for publication in ‘Indian journal of Public Administration’ in 1980.

Coming back to EVMs, it can hardly be denied that their use has greatly simplified, speeded up, and made more transparent, the conduct of elections. Undoubtedly, harm will be done if they are tampered with. What needs to be done is to prevent possible misuse of the machines, and ensure that they are duly safeguarded against theft or manipulation, rather than abandon their use altogether and go back to the outdated, if not primitive, method of ballot papers and boxes.

In May 2017, the Election Commission issued a challenge to the political parties to prove that EVMs are fool-proof. Congress veteran Kapil Sibal ridiculed the claim saying that even the Pentagon is not fool-proof! But during the EC’s all-party meeting in June, no political party could prove that EVMs are defective.

But, now in the Gujarat elections, in Porbandar, the Congress (I) candidate has alleged that EVMs were being manipulated, through the Bluetooth software. As the adage goes, the show must go on, at least for the gallery!

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