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Last Updated: Friday, 27 February, 2004, 18:43 GMT
Gearing up for India's electronic election

By Habib Beary
BBC correspondent in Bangalore

An electronic voting machine readied for action
Over one million voting machines will be rolled out for the polls
Technicians have worked overtime to make India's first all-electronic general election go smoothly.

The task is a challenging one in this one-billion-strong nation - the world's largest democracy - where most voters are still poor, rural workers.

Over one million electronic voting machines (EVMs) are required to cover this vast nation, from the Himalayas down to Kanyakumari on the southern tip.

India has an electorate of more than 668 million, covering 543 parliamentary constituencies.

The Election Commission, based in Delhi, is confident it can conduct the poll well.

"This will be a historic election," says chief election commissioner TS Krishnamurthy.

Overseas interest

NN Simha, general manager of the government-run Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) which is based in Bangalore and is one of the two suppliers of the machines, says the company has already provided 447,000 EVMs.

"We will be delivering another 60,000 soon," he says.

It is easy to operate, even by the illiterate
NN Simha,
machine supplier

The other manufacturer is also a state-run undertaking, the Electronics Corporation of India, based in Hyderabad.

Several other countries have shown an interest in the machines.

"We are working on a model for European countries and also for the US," Mr Simha told the BBC News Online.

"It is a complicated job. The quality expected is very high."

Exports to other south Asian countries and Africa are also in the pipeline.

November debut

As many as 200 technicians at BEL, which also manufactures electronic warfare equipment for India's military, have been working on the project.

They have been told to meet a deadline brought forward by the Election Commission after the poll was called early by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government

The elections had been scheduled for October.

When the EVMs had an experimental outing in five state elections in November, they drew a fascinated reaction from the electorate in rural areas.

"You won't believe the kind of response," said Mr Simha.

"Some of them were thrilled to punch the machines. I have seen so many happy villagers."

He rejected criticism that rural voters, used to balloting with a thumb impression, were not comfortable with hi-tech gadgets.

"It is easy to operate, even by the illiterate," says Mr Simha.

1. Control unit. Polling station staff press a button to release a ballot for each voter entering the booth. There is also a "close" button, which, once pressed, prevents any more votes being cast.
2. Balloting unit - this is the equivalent of a ballot paper.
3. The voter presses the button next to a candidate's name and the control unit records the vote. At the count, it says how many votes were cast and for whom.

Court approval

BEL says the machines are tamper-proof and save a massive workload.

Each EVM can record five votes a minute or an estimated 2,700 in a polling day.

"The results are out in a jiffy," says Mr Simha.

In the past, voters had to wait more than 24 hours for the result.

Ajit, an 18-year-old first-time Karnataka voter, said: "I am looking forward to voting. It is going to be exciting."

But for the ageing Papamma, a migrant labourer, the EVM is alien. "I don't know anything about it. I have always used my thumb to cast my vote."

According to Abhijit Dasgupta, Karnataka's chief electoral officer, these machines will do away with mistakes.

"It is fast and accurate and there will be no room for confusion. Each party will have a symbol and all you have to do is press the button to register your vote," he says.

And the EVM has the endorsement of Karnataka's High Court.

Judge K Shridhar Rao, in a recent order in connection with an election dispute, ruled that rigging was not possible with the use of EVMs.

"Without the least doubt, I say the machine is fully tamper-proof," the judge declared.

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