EC’s New Success Mantra

Successful experimenting is be-coming a way of life at the Elec-tion Commission (EC). The heavy deployment of IT for the general election 1998 (GE-98) got another fillip during the recently held assembly elections by the usage of electronic voting machines (EVMs). On both the occasions the experiments have met with a resounding success.

The IT equipment at the EC’s headquarters for the three days during the GE-98 consisted of 1 Alpha 400 MHz server, 8 Pentium II dual processor 266 MHz servers, 100 Pentium nodes and around 50 fax machines. Communication was through a 2 Mbps radio modem link with VSNL, 64 kpbs leased lines, wireless and PSTN lines. Data from the counting centers was faxed to the state headquarters and they in turn faxed it to the EC headquarters in Delhi. The faxed data was then manually entered into the database for further processing. The major limitation faced during GE-98 was the amount of data entry work at the EC giving a high time lag before results could be made available.

However, this time the commission has had the advantage of having a good IT infrastructure in place. Thanks to its earlier endeavor in the GE-98, the commission has been able to try hands at new technologies.

So what’s new this time?
This time around two more Pentium II dual processors were added to the GE-98 set-up. Another addition were the remote access servers (RASs) in the EC office and chief election officer (CEO) office across the states which were handling the PSTN links. Like GE-98, the EC’s home page (www.eci.gov.in) resided on the Alpha server. The communication links were the same as in GE-98. Though the hardware side at the EC did not see any dramatic change, the changes were apparent at the counting centers. To reduce its dependence on fax machines, as during the GE-98 elections, this time the EC had installed computers with dial-up facility in most of the counting centers, specially in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This also implied that the EC had to install standard election software to facilitate the process at the front end. The software package, developed by CMC, was installed at all the computerized counting centers. Training of personnel was another related problem that needed to be dealt with.

Apart from the above mentioned issues, the EC faced another set of issues much different from its GE-98 experience. As Subhas Pani, Deputy Election Commissioner, comments, "There were many challenges this time, but of a different level, like trying ISDN for the first time, standardizing our election software package, training, manuals, product deployment and various other complexities."

Electronic Voting Machine

"It’s never too late" goes the cliche,. So what if after nine years the EC finally went ahead with EVMs. The EC had purchased around 1.5 lakh machines, at a cost of around Rs4,000 each, from BHEL in 1989. Legal and political wrangling had rendered the machines as backyard junk. Thanks to the initiatives of MS Gill, the Chief Election Commissioner, the EC had gone ahead with the machines on an experimental basis installing over 4,000 machines across the country. The result-a thumping success.

Most of the counting on the EVMs in Delhi had finished by the noon of November 28, the first day of counting. This happened even as the decision on manual counting was underway. Not only was the counting done in a jiffy, the poll observers too were a happy lot.

A press of a button is all that one needs for the process-start-to-finish. On the other hand, consider the manual counting process. First, verify the seals to the satisfaction of the political party representatives present, followed by a mix of the ballot and then commence counting one at a time.

So what’s the machine set-up? It is a very elementary electronic machine consisting of two components. An interface and a main storage device. The interface at the voters’ end is connected to the main storage device which is placed with the presiding officer. Once a voter has pressed a button to cast his/her vote, the presiding officer needs to press the ‘ballot’ button on his storage device to complete the transaction. Process complete, with no chance of casting invalid votes.

The next line of action by the EC on the EVM front is trying options to connect the EVM into a computer for a quicker result announcement. Till this happens, the EC is looking forward to the next elections to evangelize tamper-proof and rigging-free EVMs.

Nevertheless, in spite of adventuring into new territories, EC was focused to make the whole process simple and sound. Earlier, the data from the counting centers was faxed to the state headquarters and to the EC’s office in New Delhi. The state headquarters, in turn, faxed the data to the EC office. Not only time consuming process but also authentication of data became a big problem. But during the recent elections, the state HQs did not come much in the picture. Data entry in the software format, developed by CMC, was done directly at the counting centers and transmitted to the EC’s office in Delhi via a modem. These counting centers were connected by traditional PSTN network, mostly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and a few of them by leased lines or ISDN as in Delhi. This time the major chunk of the data came through modem and was incorporated in the database directly and deployed on the EC’s home site without much delay. However, this in no way meant that this time the data was in any way less than GE ’98. The data flow had actually increased as it was collected from 630 units, against the earlier 543 units. Quips a CMC engineer on the premises of EC’s office, "Though an experimental set-up, but this kind of data transfer has never been tried in the country before." Once the data was received, it was checked and transmitted to the NT-based proxy server before transferring to the web server which served as the outside link of the EC.

Another first that the EC tried was generating dynamic maps on its web site. With the help of a GIS solution, the EC was able to show the exact position of the various parties on the maps of Delhi and other states.

Communication has been a great facilitator in the successful execution of the EC’s endeavor. The commission was able to handle the internet load thanks to the fast radio modem link with the VSNL. Similarly, linking state CEO offices and the EC office with RAS helped in the quick authentication of incoming data for the PSTN lines. Standardization of software along with dial up facility at the counting centers helped in quick inflow of data from these centers to the EC. Overall, the EC has been satisfied with the result, be it the EVMs or the back-end dissemination of information on the web. Says Pani, "We were sure that proper usage of IT can definitely help us overcome most of our challenges."

But is there anything new up its sleeve or is this the end of experimentation for the EC?

"Definitely not," counters the Deputy Commissioner. Next on the line is a plan to connect all the states with the central office with the help of an RAS. And very soon the EC will have its own data link circuit exchange with the help of MTNL. The center is expected to commence operation early this year, once the final stage of laying the optical fiber is completed by the MTNL. Chips in Pani, "Communication is very critical to us and we are looking at each component to get a high reliability and hence are planning the infrastructure accordingly."

For the political parties, candidates as well as the general public, it would be good if the EC carries out its plan to the dot. The suspense about the results will then become a matter of hours rather than being an eager wait for days.

Yograj Varma,
in New Delhi.

 



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