There are reports, once again, that undermine people’s trust in the electronic voting machines (EVMs). News stories this week disclosed that the Election Commission of India (ECI) had found nearly 6.5 lakh Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines “defective” and, that too, of a certain series, which had been used in recent elections, causing alarm with politicians and voters who have long distrusted the electronic process. A host of experts including former election commissioners expressed concern at this development and its implications on the conduct of free and fair elections. The ECI, however, denied that the number was that high stating that 3.4 lakh machines had been flagged as requiring “preventive maintenance”. In fact, it stated that some old machines were being retired and it was overseeing the manufacture of new ones for the 2024 general elections.
Whatever the nature of the truth here, this is hardly the first time that questions or concerns have been raised about the accuracy and reliability of the machines. Whenever raised, the ECI and pro-machine lobbies have dismissed these as sour-grapes syndrome on the part of political parties which have lost an election and found it convenient to blame the machines. The ECI has tried to hold sessions to demonstrate that the machines cannot be tampered with. However, in nearly every state election, there have been reports of malfunctioning machines in which all votes went to the ruling party as well as machines that were carted away surreptitiously in vehicles not designated by the ECI. Every such incident, which is seen by lakhs who receive clips on social media even if the conventional media ducks the issue, makes the question of accuracy and reliability more urgent. To top it all, countries with better systems than India still rely on ballot papers.
The ECI must recognise that the needle of suspicion about the machines will not simply move away, and it has the responsibility of assuaging people’s suspicion about the machines as well as the process itself. This is important for the continued belief in the process of free and fair elections which are central to India’s functioning democracy. The lack of transparency and continuing cloaks of secrecy over the machines and the processes by the ECI does not help matters at all. It must allow a diverse set of professionals as well as non-professionals to satisfy themselves that all is, indeed, well before the bugle is sounded for the 2024 general elections.
Help or hurdle?
The move by the University Grants Commission (UGC) earlier this week to permit students in all higher education institutions to write exams in their mother tongue even if their medium of instruction was English has provoked a debate, as it should. The UGC claimed that this was meant to promote regional languages and is in step with the NEP (National Education Policy) 2020, which advocates learning through local language or mother tongue. Many students, it claimed, find it difficult to express themselves clearly in English though they study in that medium.
While the UGC’s rationale cannot be argued with, it is worth reflecting on how this move will play out in lakhs of higher education institutions around the country which are already burdened with intensive syllabi, lack of faculty, and pressure to complete exams and declare results. The simplest of all questions arises here: are higher education institutions supposed to now provide for examiners in all languages to assess answers papers in exams, and where will these examiners be found, if at all? Will this additional layer of work not delay the declaration of results further, impeding the entire academic calendar for millions of students for no fault of theirs? The practical aspects of this move seem to have eluded the august body which presides over India’s higher education.
There is, indeed, merit in the argument that children must learn – or learn well – in their mother language or local language. Making education available to millions of children around the country in languages they are comfortable with is a good move and should be supported. However, there are ways to promote the use of the mother or local language other than writing exam answer papers in them, which can roil the examination process for many students all at once. The road to misery, to paraphrase a well-known saying, is paved with good intentions. The UGC should reconsider this move.
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