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19 April 2017 Editorial


19 APRIL 2017 

Lines of defence

(for using EVMs)

The inclusion of paper audit trails to the EVMs is costly but perhaps unavoidable

In the face of extreme and unreasonable complaints against Electronic Voting Machines by a number of political parties, the Election Commission perhaps had no choice but to have the working of the machines corroborated by a paper audit trail. To have such a facility ready for all constituencies by the 2019 Lok Sabha election is expensive (an estimated ?3,174 crore) and also unnecessary (paper trails are at best required in a few constituencies to corroborate results). Its request to the Law Ministry to release funds for the procurement of voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines for the 2019 Lok Sabha election should be interpreted in this context. As many as 16 lakh VVPAT machines will be required and only an urgent release of funds will allow the machines to be ready in time for 2019. It was possible for the EC to brush off the complaints from the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Aam Aadmi Party following their defeat in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab respectively, but it clearly became increasingly difficult for it to ignore the clutch of parties that joined the chorus, some demanding a return to paper ballots.

The EC has repeatedly assured voters that there are enough procedural and technical safeguards to prevent large-scale tampering or manipulation of EVMs. Since 2006, elections have witnessed the use of upgraded EVMs - Model 2 machines, with security features such as dynamic coding of key codes on ballot units and their transfer as messages to the control unit in an encrypted manner. EVMs feature encoded software that is burnt one-time on to programmable chips, enabling them to be used as stand-alone machines rather than computer-connected units, thus preventing any hacking by remote devices. Model 3 machines produced after 2013 have additional features such as tamper detection. The EC has laid down procedural rules of locking and storing EVMs before and after polling, besides functional checks and tests in the presence of representatives of political parties. The addition of the VVPAT machine to the process is to allow for cross-checking of EVM results through a paper audit, completing another layer of accountability to the indigenously produced machines (only the microchip is manufactured outside the country with the machine language embedded on it). Contrary to glib claims about tampering, studies show the introduction of EVMs has resulted in a drastic reduction in electoral fraud (rigging, stuffing of ballot boxes, etc.) and allowed for greater voter participation. Since reverting to the older paper ballot system will be regressive, the only option in the face of the protests is to have a back-up in the form of a paper trail - something that will hopefully put a quietus to the controversy.

Equity in debt

The expert panel's recommendation to review the fiscal responsibility law is timely

The advice of the expert committee to review the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act of 2003 requires attention, given India's track record. This is all the more so given the born-again political conviction that promises of random largesse to voters is just fine. Excessive and unsustainable borrowing by the government is obviously perverse as it entails a cost on future generations while crowding out private investment. In the past, fiscal irresponsibility has cost jobs, spiked inflation, put the currency in a tailspin and even brought the country to the brink of a default. The possibility of default may have resulted in the liberalisation of the economy in 1991, but the key trigger was irrational public spending on borrowed money in the late-1980s. Less than a decade later, with fiscal discipline faltering and the deficit shooting up to 10% of GDP, the FRBM law was enacted to ‘limit the government's borrowing authority' under Article 268 of the Constitution. But the target to limit the fiscal deficit to 3% of GDP (by 2009) was abandoned after the 2008 global financial crisis as a liberal stimulus reversed the gains in the fiscal space, creating fresh macro-level instability. The FRBM Act's deficit target is now only likely to be met next year.

Such damage transmissions from the political economy to the real economy need to be checked forthwith. The committee's proposal to maintain the 3% target till 2019-20 before aiming for further reduction is pragmatic, as the ‘extraordinary and unanticipated domestic development' of demonetisation happened during its tenure. Such an event, the committee has said, could trigger an escape clause from fixed fiscal targets in its proposed rule-based framework. Instead of focussing purely on the fiscal and revenue deficit numbers, which should be brought down to 2.5% and 0.8% of GDP respectively by 2023, the panel has called for paring India's cumulative public debt as a proportion to GDP to 60% by 2023 - from around 68% at present. The latter, a simpler measure for solvency purposes, should inspire confidence among rating agencies. Though this has put paid to the government's hope that a fiscal deficit range could be targeted instead of absolute numbers, the Finance Minister has committed to the 3% target for the next two years, from the 3.2% target for 2017-18. A clear fiscal policy framework in tandem with the monetary policy framework already adopted could act as a powerful signal of commitment to macroeconomic stability. The Centre must swiftly take a call on the panel's recommendations - including for a new debt and fiscal responsibility law, and the creation of a Fiscal Council with independent experts that could sit in judgment on the need for deviations from targets. It is equally critical that States are brought on board, as the 60% debt target includes 20% on their account. Their finances are worsening again even as the clamour for Uttar Pradesh-style loan waivers grows.

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