New Delhi, April 19: The Union cabinet today agreed to release funds for equipping electronic voting machines with paper trails before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, after receiving over a dozen letters from the Election Commission and facing Opposition allegations of EVM manipulation.
The amount - Rs 3,173.47 crore - will be released to the commission over two budgets, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley told journalists at a cabinet briefing. Since this year's budget has already been finalised, half the amount - approximately Rs 1,600 crore - will be factored into the revised estimate and the remaining included in the 2018-19 budget.
The cabinet's decision comes less than a week after the Bahujan Samaj Party and other Opposition outfits sought the Supreme Court's intervention in ensuring compliance with its October 8, 2013, directive to the Centre to back up every EVM with a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT).
In a statement after the cabinet's decision, the Election Commission said: "With this the commission will ensure the total compliance of the orders of Hon'ble Supreme Court and its commitment to use VVPATs with every EVM at all polling stations in the country in the general election of 2019."
On the allegation of EVM fraud, Jaitley referred to what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said at the recently concluded national executive meeting of the BJP in Bhubaneswar. "This controversy was manufactured in the Opposition's factory," Modi had said.
Jaitley said EVMs were introduced by the Congress in 1992. However, according to the Election Commission website, the machines "were used on experimental basis for the first time in 16 Assembly constituencies in the states of Madhya Pradesh (5) and Rajasthan (5) and the NCT of Delhi (6) in the general election to the respective Legislative Assemblies held in November 1998".
The then Congress government had in 1989 amended the Representation of the People Act to allow the use of EVMs. But it was during the second NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 that the machines were deployed in an election for the first time. EVMs were used nationwide for the first time in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.
After the Modi government came to power in May-end 2014, the Election Commission wrote at least a dozen letters to the law ministry seeking adequate funds to comply with the Supreme Court order. Last October, following two contempt notices, the chief election commissioner sent an SOS letter to the Prime Minister, requesting his intervention to ensure the release of funds, but to no avail.
However, after the Uttar Pradesh election results were announced, BSP chief Mayawati launched a campaign alleging EVM "fraud" and a number of Opposition parties joined in.
Some demanded VVPATs while the others called for the return of paper ballots.
The issue dominated a marathon Rajya Sabha discussion on electoral reforms late last month but despite repeated demands for an assurance on funds for VVPATs, both Jaitley and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad dodged the issue. Prasad cited logistical problems in procuring the machines.
The first set of 20,300 VVPATs were procured by the Election Commission in 2013 in keeping with a suggestion for a paper trail at an all-party meeting in October 2010. The meeting had been called after BJP leaders had cried foul about EVMs after the party's poor showing in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
VVPATs were used in the 2014 parliamentary elections in select booths. In 2015, the poll panel placed an order for 67,000 VVPATs, of which 33,500 units have been supplied by two manufacturers - Bharat Electronics and the Electronics Corporation of India.
The Election Commission is under pressure to use VVPATs in the Assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later this year and Tripura in early 2018.