Sudden rush to purchase EVM

An electronic voting machine (EVM)File photo

The government is suddenly rushing to get the approval for the project to purchase 200,000 electronic voting machines. The planning commission started the project-related works from Wednesday.

According to sources, the project may get approval at the ECNEC (Executive Committee of the National Economic Council) meeting on 17 January.

The Election Commission (EC) wants to use EVMs in a maximum of 150 constituencies in the upcoming general elections. They have already sent a proposal for this project worth Tk 87.11 billion to the planning commission. However, there is a massive controversy in the country's political arena regarding the use of EVMs in the national polls. In addition to that, spending a massive sum of money and foreign currency for purchasing EVMs amidst the ongoing economic crisis, has raised questions as well.

The people concerned say the government is raising the power tariff to collect. Costs of some 51 services of the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority have been raised exponentially. Before that, the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources increased the price of fuel oil at a record rate. The government has cut down the allocations for ongoing development projects and discouraged the respective authorities in taking up any new project. Therefore, the question has been raised as to why to take up such a project at such a time, which will cost a large amount of people’s tax money and foreign currency.

According to the guidelines on preparing, processing, approving and amending development projects in the government sector, a feasibility study by an experienced, neutral and professional company agency is obligatory for projects worth more than Tk 500 million. However, this project has not followed this.

An interim evaluation of the previous projects is required before taking up similar kinds of projects. However, there was no interim evaluation of the previous project for purchasing EVMs. The planning commission also had objected to this.

However, a new initiative has been undertaken hastily for an interim evaluation of the previous project to get the approval for the new project. However, the work on interim evaluation is yet to be started. Only five days are left to complete the evaluation before raising the new project in the ECNEC meeting for approval on 17 January.

Although there are some 11 projects on the agenda of the ECNEC meeting on 17 January, the EVM project included in this. The sources say the government is in such a rush for this project that it could be taken up in the meeting.

The EC has been saying for the last few days that the EVM project must get the approval by mid-January. Otherwise, it will be impossible to use EVMs in 150 constituencies.

Speaking to Prothom Alo regarding this, state minister for planning Shamsul Alam on Wednesday said, “The Planning Commission has no problem in approving the EVM project. However, the major concern is the fund required for this. We need assurance of funds from the finance ministry.”

No meeting of evaluation committee yet

In the dialogue held by the Election Commission with the registered political parties last July, the ruling Awami League demanded voting through EVMs in all 300 constituencies in the upcoming 12th national polls. On the other hand, BNP has been accusing EVMs of being a 'rigging machine'. Some 22 political parties gave their opinions regarding the EVM in the dialogue. Some 14 parties, including the Jatiya Party, had clearly expressed their concern and doubts over the use of EVMs in the polls. Chief election commissioner Habibul Awal himself had said in the dialogue that most of the parties did not have confidence in EVM.

However, on 23 August, the EC said they had decided to use EVMs in a maximum of 150 constituencies. They already have 150,000 EVMs. They need some 200,000 more.

The proposal for this EVM project worth more than Tk 87.11 billion was sent to the Planning Commission on 19 October. The government will provide the entire fund of the project for 'increasing the use of EVMs in electoral systems and sustainable management.'

As per the law, the project evaluation committee (PEC) must meet before getting the approval from ECNEC where representatives from different ministries will share their opinions on the project. However, in case of this project no PEC meeting has been held as yet.

It has been learnt from the Planning Commission that the officials of the EC held several meetings to accomplish the process of getting the approval from the ECNEC.

Col Rakibul Hasan, director of the EVM project of the EC, went to the Planning Commission after the regular office time. Asked about his visit, he told Prothom Alo, “We have responded to the observations given by the Planning Commission regarding the EVM project. I came here to see whether they have any more queries.”

Objections of Planning Commission

The EC proposed to purchase 200,000 EVMs at a cost of Tk 66.60 billion as well as 534 double cabin pickup trucks at a cost of 2.64 billion to transport these EVMs. The EC also sought fund on several sectors including Tk 3.70 billion to establish 10 warehouses for storing EVMs, Tk 2.06 billion for publicity of EVMs, and Tk 1.32 billion to use CCTV camera and security equipment on lease.

The Planning Commission, however, raised several objections on the proposal after it reached them. A letter was sent to the EC on 9 November asking explanation and the EC replied to the letter on 9 December. Project director colonel Rakibul Hasan spoke to Prothom Alo on Wednesday over the reply of the letter.

People concerned said the Planning Commission raised objections on the vehicle procurement saying so many vehicles cannot be purchased amid the economic crisis and vehicles can be hired, if necessary. In reply, the EC said nobody could provide such a large number of vehicles in Bangladesh and vehicles might be needed to transport EVNs urgently, which is why it is necessary to purchase vehicles.

According to the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), there are 153,657 registered single and double cabin pickup vans in the country and of these vehicles, 9,804 pickup vans were registered in 2022. People concerned said the government can hire vehicles for election purpose.

Replying to a query on why the proposal was forwarded to the Planning Commission without carrying out a feasibility study, the EVM project director said if they start a feasibility study, they could not use EVMs in the next election, which is why the feasibility study was not conducted.

Letters were exchanged between the Planning Commissions and the EC on interim evaluation. The EC sent a letter to the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) on 29 December. It states the first project taken in 2028 on purchase of EVM at a cost of Tk 38.25 billion is underway and it will end on 2023. To date, the EC completed 1,060 elections successfully using the EMVs purchased under this project and a new project on EVM has been taken in continuity of the previous project.

The EC in the letter requested the IMED to carry out the interim evaluation of the on-going project. Speaking to Prothom on Wednesday night, IMED secretary Abul Kashem Md Mohiuddin said, “I joined this office on 1 January and I received no letter related to the EVM project.”

The Planning Commission also gave observation on the matter of fund and foreign currency, to be spent to purchase EVMs. The Planning Commission in its letter to the EC said existing dollar crisis is likely to disrupt the implementation of the project.

Project director colonel Rakbul Hasan said, “The Bangladesh Machines Tools Factory (BMTF) will purchase EVMs and we will pay them in taka. How the BMTF will arrange dollars is their concern, not ours.”

According people concerned, procuring dollars will put pressure on the country’s foreign exchange market. Data from Bangladesh Bank shows foreign currency reserve of the country fell to $32.57 billion. The BMTF, however, will import equipment of EMV from abroad.

The Planning Commission also recommended open tender method (OTM) instead of direct tender method (DTM) to implement the project.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Planning Commission joint secretary Abdur Rauf said, “We gave several observations on this project and we have received their responses.”

Question on price

The EC in its project proposed the price of EMV at Tk 333,000 per unit - a rise by 62 per cent or Tk 128,000 from the price of Tk 205,000 per EVM in 2018. Replying to a query on the rise in EVM price, project director Colonel Rakibul Hasan said price goes up due to rise in dollar price as well duty and tariff.

According the banks, currently price of per dollar stands at Tk 105 for import – a 22 per cent rise from Tk 86 a dollar in May last year.

The price gave rise to questions when the EC purchased EMVs in 2018. At that time, the Indian election commission purchased EVMs at Rs. 17,000 or Tk 21,250 per unit. Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) built the EVM from the EC at a cost of Tk 20-22 thousand per unit. The feature of EVMs differ slightly, the EC had purchased the EMVs with high price in 2018 and people concerned termed such huge price gap as unusual.

In September last year, 39 eminent citizens of the country in a statement urged the government not to use EVMs in election. They said many countries in the world have backtracked from using EVMs in election due to technological limitations and voter’s lack of trust, and only 13 out of 178 countries are using EVMs in elections.

Voting is delayed in Bangladesh because of EVM. Voters' fingerprints do not match. Eelderly voters often lose their patience and leave the polling centre. Recently, voting was held until the evening in Rangpur City Corporation.

There was an allocation of Tk 7 billion for the 11 parliamentary election in 2018 and this time, the government is going to take a Tk 8.5 billion project alone to purchase EVMs.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan) secretary Badiul Alam Majumdar said an economic crisis prevails in the country; the government has urged all to maintain austerity. So, doubt will arise among people on why EVMs are being purchased hurriedly amid such situation.

Various political parties have been objecting on the use of EVM in the national election and it was proved in various places that results of election conducted with EVMs can also be rigged. So, it is necessary to know why the EVMs are being purchased and from whom interest without considering anything else, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashis Basu and Hasanul Banna