Bihar’s ongoing 11-phase panchayat polls, which introduced a biometric system for verifying voters in voting booths, may have curbed bogus votes, but cases of cyber fraud have raised a question mark that the system is infallible.
The State Election Commission (SEC), which organizes the panchayat polls, has now taken a series of measures to strengthen the system by imposing strict controls on staff operating the machines and capturing the fingerprints of voters in the machines for checking and limiting the use of cell phones to the cabins. It comes after reports emerged of fraudsters withdrawing money from voter accounts by falsely taking their fingerprints in other devices.
How did it happen
In the district of Munger, during the ninth phase of the ballot on November 29, more than a dozen voters were at the end of their tether when they discovered with dismay that money had been debited from their accounts. Hight of ??5000-10000 just one hour after they voted at booth number 145 in the village of Charaun under the Munger Sadar block under the Muffasil police station.
The victims, including some women, immediately rushed to the cabins and caused a commotion. SDM, Sadar, Munger, Khushboo Gupta, after reaching the voting booth, interviewed a Ravi Kumar handling the biometric machines and subsequently found out how he was the one who had secretly taken voters’ fingerprints on his phone before he ‘they put their fingerprints in the biometric machine to vote.
Police investigations revealed that Kumar, now in jail after the arrest, worked at a nearby Common Service Centers (CSC) kiosk that provides various government-related services to villagers, including cash transactions from a rural bank. , which had its only branch in the village. People familiar with the matter said Kumar had his login ID through which he had access to the bank accounts of voters with accounts at the branch.
Villagers’ bank accounts could be valued by agents working at the CSC (also called cash, point of sale) by easily obtaining a thumbprint and Aadhaar card details. Fraudulent withdrawal of money is possible because staff have access to login credentials and also obtain the OTP (one-time password) on behalf of account holders, as those familiar with how CSCs work. For the biometric system used in the panchayat surveys, thousands of agents working in Bihar CHCs at village level had been mobilized.
âRavi Kumar had loaded an application on his phone through which he was able to access the accounts of the victims using the fingerprints taken on his phone and the details of the Aadhaar card. He connected to the bank from a Guddu in Banka, âsaid SDM, Munger.
“He took the fingerprints of voters twice, once for the phone and a second for the biometric machine to vote,” added the SDM.
DSP (Headquarters) Munger, Alok Ranjan, who is now the acting SP, Munger, said investigations were still ongoing.
By the way, similar complaints of fraudulent withdrawal of money from the bank accounts of around 30 people came to light on the same day (November 29) at booths # 81 and 133 in the Baisi Block shortly after the deceived people had left. voted in the ninth phase of voting. All of the victims were from Surgaon, Kumharwa, Baisi, Mobehaa, Chairaiya and Rehuya panchayat in Baisi bloc in Purnea district, one of the poorest districts in the neighboring state of West Bengal.
An investigation by SP Purnea, Daya Shankar, submitted to DM, Purnea, Rahul Kumar mentions that of the 30 people who filed complaints for loss of money due to fraudulent withdrawals, six did not vote. The report also states that on November 29, money from 27 people’s bank accounts was fraudulently withdrawn while on November 28, three others were swindled.
âIt turned out that about four months ago, unidentified people took the fingerprints of the villagers in the name of granting loans. A few days before the elections, some microfinance company officials obtained money on behalf of small account holders by fingerprinting CSP agents, âthe report said.
According to the police report, a certain Mohammed Amir alias Khushro was arrested a few months ago on charges of fraudulent withdrawal of cash from the accounts of certain people via the biometric system on the complaint filed at the Amur police station on date. from 8.9.2021.
However, police have so far not made any arrests related to fraudulent withdrawals of money from the bank accounts of 30 people in Baisi. âNo arrests have been made so far. Investigations are ongoing, âsaid DM Purnea.
Vulnerability of the biometric system
Cases of fraudulent withdrawals of money from voters ‘bank accounts right after they have voted in the panchayat election have raised some questions about the “foolproof” biometric system to verify voters’ identities. Questions are being raised as to whether voters’ thumb prints could be misused.
India government’s Deputy Director General of Telecommunications Atul Sinha believes that the biometric system is certainly a good method of voter verification as it is linked to Aadhaar, but sometimes thumbprinting can be misused. âThere are some vulnerabilities, as a thumbprint mistakenly given or taken in any other device for ulterior motives could be misused by fraudsters. But, I want to say that the biometric voter verification system, once it registers any person’s thumbprint, cannot be manipulated or misused â.
State Election Commissioner Dr Deepak Prasad has also made a strong case that the biometric voter identification system used in panchayat polls is foolproof, claiming that the case of fraudulent withdrawal of money in Munger is not had not occurred from the biometric machine of voters.
âThis is just one isolated case in Munger where a person with ulterior motives manipulated the system using their own device which was later detected. In Purnea, there is still no evidence that the fraudulent cash withdrawals were made by any manipulation of our biometric system, as some of the fraudulent withdrawals were as large as ??30,000 to ??40000. The upper limit for withdrawing CSC points in villages is only ??10,000, âhe said.
The digital thumbprint fraud of voters in Munger and Purnea brought CSC staff, deployed to manipulate biometric machines in voting booths during the panchayat election vote, under the scanner.
First, he revealed how a CSC member used his own device to secretly fingerprint voters with bank accounts and withdraw money. Second, it raised the question of whether the SEC was correct in hiring the CSC agents (working on the commission) to manage the biometric machines in the cabins.
SEC, Dr Prasad, maintained that the polling panel decided to hire CSC staff to use biometric machines because the job required some technical know-how. In addition, CSC staff worked for government agencies, as all CSC programs are information technology-based online governance services under the Department of Electronics and Information Technology.
âIn each phase, 12,000 CHC staff were recruited by randomization. But there was an unfortunate case of cheating by a member of staff. So the percentage of staff engaging in fraud is negligible and more or less the biometrics system has not been tampered with either. We decided to hire CHCs because they worked in government departments. We did not hire any private person for the job, âhe said.
Prasad also said that the Baisi fraud case apparently resembles the work of some local gangs as well as some elements that are against the biometric system because it verified the bogus vote. âI cannot deny the possibility of an ongoing conspiracy to defame the biometric voter verification system as it brought transparency to the voting system and also controlled for false votes. On average, 12,000 to 15,000 people have so far been caught trying to vote wrong in the 10 electoral phases, âhe said. The 11 panchayat ballots will end on December 12.
Nonetheless, the SEC said the state election panel had further tightened the controls in place for staff handling biometric machines in voting booths by instructing DMs that no CSC staff would be allowed to take phones and that login credentials would remain inactive on polling day. . “We believe that such cases would no longer take place,” Prasad said.