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Apex court query on Net voting for NRIs

New Delhi, April 7: The Supreme Court today asked the Election Commission and the Centre to look into whether non-resident Indians could vote in the ongoing elections through electronic or other means without having to fly back home.

Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and N.V. Ramana asked the poll panel and the Centre to respond by Friday.

The directive came on a public interest petition filed by a UAE-based doctor, a Kerala native, who said “only 11,000” NRIs had enrolled as voters whereas over one crore Indians lived abroad, according to May 2012 figures of the ministry of overseas Indian affairs.

Apart from voting through the Internet, the PIL filed by Dr Shamsheer had also suggested setting up ballot boxes at Indian missions abroad.

“What is the difficulty if you can provide some facility through electronic method for voting. How much time it is going to take? You can make some efforts and tell us,” Justice Radhakrishnan, who was heading the bench, told the commission’s lawyer, Meenakshi Arora.

The bench then told Arora and additional solicitor general K.V. Vishwanathan, who appeared for the Union government, to respond by April 11, a day before the scheduled fourth leg of the elections that got under way this morning.

Arora had told the court the commission had already set up a committee, which was exploring ways to make it possible for NRIs to vote from their countries of residence. She said the committee would examine whether NRIs could vote through the Internet or by other means but it wouldn’t be possible to make such arrangements for the ongoing elections as the process had already started.

The commission would “provide them (the) facility” as and when elections are held next time, “either for the Assemblies or Parliament”, Arora said. “But it is not possible for these elections.”

The bench wasn’t impressed. “If we give you time now, it will take years and years for you to implement it. We want you to consider, whether you can create any facility, for the present elections,” it said, adjourning the matter till Friday.

Senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi and advocate Harris Beran, who appeared for Shamsheer, suggested that the Election Commission could install ballot boxes at embassies so that NRIs eligible to vote could exercise their franchise.

They told the court that Section 20A of the Representation of People’s Act had placed an unreasonable restriction as NRIs needed to be physically present in their constituencies at the time of elections.

“It is submitted that as per the ministry of overseas Indian affairs’ own data, 1,00,37,761 Indians reside abroad as on May 2012 and are entitled to vote. But only 11,000 NRIs have enrolled as voters in the electoral list.

“If the relief as sought for by the petitioner is granted, then a total number of 1,00,37,761 people will be entitled to cast their vote as against a paltry 11,000 who have registered. It is therefore submitted that Section 20A directly violates Article 14 (right to equality) of the Constitution of India,” Shamsheer’s PIL said.

According to Section 20A, every Indian who stays abroad but has not acquired citizenship of any other country shall be entitled to have their name registered in the electoral roll in the constituency in which their place of residence in India, as mentioned in their passport, is located.

The section, introduced by way of an amendment in 2010, also says that such persons, if otherwise eligible to exercise their franchise, shall be allowed to vote in an election “in the constituency” concerned.

Shamsheer, once a voter in his hometown Calicut, had migrated to the UAE 12 years ago. His name was later removed from the voters’ list because of his NRI status.

The petitioner owns nine hospitals in the UAE apart from a pharmaceutical manufacturing unit. Of the 5,600 people who work for him, 3,600 are Indians.

The Indian government had earlier awarded him Pravasi Bharatiya Samman for his outstanding services in the field of medicine.