Four years since the procurement of 1.5 lakh electronic voting machines (EVMs) started, the Election Commission has finally realised that such machines need proper storage and regular maintenance – only after a good number have already gone out of order.
With no budget for renting storage spaces, around 70,000 EVMs are now kept in different upazila and district election offices with no guards, no CCTV surveillance and no regular maintenance. The remaining 80,000 EVMs have been stored in the warehouse of Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory at a rent of Tk97.5 lakh per month.
In election times, EVMs are checked regularly by engineers, but after the elections are over, they lie uncared for because there is no manpower, say relevant sources.
The government procured the EVMs at Tk2.34 lakh each under a five-year project worth Tk3,825 crore taken up in 2018 – totalling an expense of more than Tk3,500 crore. The project tenure will end in June 2023.
The voting machines are now going out of order lying in upazila offices with no regular maintenance.
For example, all 1,063 EVMs that are stored in upazila election offices of Feni have already become out of order as there is no regular check up, an official seeking anonymity at Feni district election office told The Business Standard.
Care is not being taken to properly store the EVMs that require specific temperature and ventilation, he noted.
EVMs are being stored in similar conditions all over the country, the official added.
"We have already informed Election Commission officials in Dhaka of the situation. They have permitted us to rent a storage space," he also said.
But no warehouse or organisation participated in a tender they had floated for storing EVMs, he noted.
Another election officer at the Barishal district office told TBS that an initiative has been taken to rent a district-level storeroom.
They have also sent a proposal to the Election Commission, requesting that Ansar men be deployed for the security of EVMs in non-election periods, he said.
There are 1,500 EVMs in 10 upazila election offices in Barishal and more will come from Dhaka, the official added.
Stating that EVMs go through checks only before going to polling booths, he said it is not done in non-election times because of the manpower crisis.
According to Election Commission sources, 2,535 EVMs were procured at an expense of Tk49 crore in 2018 before the project was taken later in the same year. But all have now gone out of order.
The commission hopes that they will be able to reuse the machines after repairs.
Election Commission Secretary Humayun Kabir Khandaker has recently directed the formation of a five-member committee headed by EC System Manager Rafiqul Haque to assess the operational capability and possibility of re-using these EVMs.
Former election commissioner Brigadier General (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain said EVMs are not being stored the proper way.
"We see such sensitive digital machines are stored either in basements or in regular rooms or in damp places causing damage which is eventually a waste of public money," he also said.
There are specific procedures for maintenance – temperature and humidity issues need to be taken into consideration, Sakhawat Hossain added.
"I have come to know that there is a plan to rent warehouses to store EVMs. But we have to be aware of the fact that such machines cannot be kept in normal storage spaces," he pointed out.
So, there is a need for hiring a consultant to get an idea about how to store EVMs, he said.
Dr ABM Harun-Ur-Rashid, professor at Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering of Buet, said EVMs should be kept in a controlled temperature air-conditioned room, otherwise, there is a risk of damage to these machines.
Besides, these machines need to be preserved through improved packaging so they last for many days, he added.
How India stores EVMs in non-election periods
All available EVMs in an Indian district are normally stored in a warehouse, which is secured by a double lock, guarded 24/7 by security guards, and is under CCTV surveillance as well. In a non-election period, EVMs cannot be moved out of the warehouse without specific instructions from the Election Commission. The first-level check of the EVMs by engineers is done here, in the presence of representatives of political parties, according to a report of The Indian Express.
EC wants to spend on EVMs maintenance from revenue income
A meeting of the Project Implementation Committee, chaired by the EC secretary, on 7 June decided to allocate funds for maintenance of EVMs and increase manpower.
At present, there are only 13 people engaged in the EVM project and this inadequate manpower is not sufficient for using EVMs across the country, according to meeting sources.
Ashok Kumar Debnath, additional secretary to the EC, said when the EVM project proposal was prepared in 2017, the issue of storing EVMs did not get much attention. At that time, they only considered centralised storage of EVMs.
Now, there will be upazila-level storage facilities that will be secured by guards round the clock, he noted.
The EVM procurement project, which will come to an end in June 2023, will not see any time extension. But they have taken measures to meet warehouse rents, salaries of security guards and other expenses from revenue income, he also said.
But EVMs will be stored in districts where standards can be maintained, he noted.
In the meantime, the EC cannot pay rents for its 80,000 EVMs stored in the warehouse of Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory because there is no allocation for the rents in the project proposal. From June 2019 to June 2022, it has dues amounting to around Tk35 crore.
Ashok Kumar said as per the agreement, they are not supposed to pay rents to the Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory. The issue is now in discussion.
But, if necessary, they will pay from the revenue budget, he also said.