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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Bengaluru voter data theft: BBMP officials enabled private firm to collect information illegally, probe indicates

Chilume Trust, which has no employees of its own, hired people by sub-contracting work to other NGOs for data collection.Officials of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) enabled Chilume Trust, the firm accused in the Bengaluru voter data theft case, to “illegally collect voter data on an unauthorised private digital application (Digital Sameeksha)” and store it “in a foreign server, thereby creating wilfully, opportunities for wrongful gain from personal data”, an investigation has found.

The probe carried out by Bengaluru Regional Commissioner Amlan Aditya Biswas, based on the directions of the State Election Commission, has recommended a separate police investigation into the role of BBMP officers in the case. It also highlighted the delay exercised by IAS officer S Rangappa, the then special commissioner (elections) in acting on the complaint filed against Chilume by Samanvaya Trust on September 20, 2022, “the intent of which needs to established in (a) more detailed departmental enquiry,” the report said.

Apart from interviews with IAS officers and Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) involved in the case, the investigation report submitted in February this year also audited the finances of Chilume and its sister concerns.

After allegations of voter data theft came to light, the police had arrested Ravi Kumar Krishnappa, director of Chilume enterprises, and some employees of the firm along with BBMP officials. Two IAS officers were also suspended.

The probe report noted that “no electoral fraud or manipulation of electoral roll” were detected in the three constituencies – Shivajinagar, Chickpet and Mahadevpura – and that there was “no evidence of any intrusion into or tampering of data” on ERO.net or on the operations of the Election Commission’s Garuda app. The report also recommended that the police immediately retrieve the data collected by Chilume which are hosted on Chinese or East European servers.

Chilume Trust, which has no employees of its own, hired people by sub-contracting work to other NGOs for data collection. Such persons “were appointed in place of government Booth Level Officers (BLOs) by order by Assistant Electoral Registration Officers (AEROs) with actual BLO cards issued to them by AEROs” for the Summary Revision of electoral rolls in 2016-17. Again in 2017-18, AEROs appointed Chilume “to supply BLOs to go along with regular BLOs for house-to-house survey,” the report read, noting that the services of the firm were offered to the BBMP pro bono and with certain conditions for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
However, things got murky in 2021 when in March that year, “with no Assembly or Parliament election in sight, the SVEEP Officer, CEO Office Karnataka, Shri Vastrad IAS (Retd) forwarded a request by Chilume Trust for carrying out SVEEP for BBMP elections (which is the responsibility of the State Election Commission)”. SVEEP or Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation is carried out ahead of elections organised by the Central Election Commission.

Subsequently in 2021, Chilume Trust was appointed pro bono by the then assistant district election officer (central) based on the “Trust’s request without any independent verification of their antecedents” to conduct a door-to-door survey of voters in Rajarajeshwarinagar constituency. This decision “requires a detailed enquiry on its own,” the report said.
In January 2022, the then Mahadevpura ERO, quoting the 2018 order for SVEEP for the Lok Sabha elections, issued an order appointing Chilume Trust for door-to-door survey. In June 2022, EROs of Mahadevpura, Shivajinagara and Chickpet “issued ID cards for ‘Booth Level Coordination Officer’, a designation which itself is false. All norms and guidelines were violated regarding issue of ID cards and also, no records of persons (it was) issued to were kept, thereby effectively putting the survey work in great risk of manipulation”.
On August 16, 2022, Chilume were recommended for SVEEP again by the special commissioner (elections), BBMP and the civic body’s SVEEP nodal officer to the chief commissioner and district election officer, BBMP, “in two days without independent assessment of their antecedents”, according to the investigation report.

In January 2022, Mahadevapura ERO K Chandrashekar issued an order to Chilume to work alongside BLOs for Special Summary Revision (SSR) and SVEEP for the 2023 polls. “The entire order seems to be deliberately designed by the ERO to grant entry to Chilume workers into the process of SSR, though ostensibly in the guise of SVEEP. The said ERO followed this up with another enabling order to Chilume on 2nd March 2022 to carry out door-to-door visits” with directions to all households, apartment associations and resident welfare associations to cooperate. “In June 2022, EROs (of) Mahadevpura, Shivajinagara and Chikkapete issued ID cards for ‘Booth Level Coordination Officer’, a designation which itself is false, ostensibly because the Chilume workers were facing opposition from residents”.

On the role of Rangappa, the report said the officer took “a lot of time to examine the complaint” filed by Samanvaya Trust, and gave “repeated opportunities to Chilume Trust to answer” the allegations. “The due diligence required was not done at the time of initial examination of Chilume Trust’s proposal as admitted by him. After receiving the complaint, two days were given to Chilume for clarification, then three days were spent studying the email, then further time was taken after he directed Samanvaya Trust to submit evidence in support of their allegations,” the report said.

“Thereafter he waited six days for Chilume’s reply. Thus, the SVEEP Nodal officer had kept the file for 16 days, and Shri Rangappa kept it for discussion with Chilume Trust even after recommendation to cancel for 23 days before finally cancelling the order on behalf of DEO allegedly on 4th November,” it added.

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