The story so far:
On November 16, Bengaluru’s civic body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) said in a press release that it had cancelled permissions granted to the Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust to conduct house-to-house surveys to help create awareness about the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme. The NGO has been accused of collecting personal information from the public, under the guise of spreading awareness, by impersonating BBMP officials. The Congress-led Opposition has alleged that this was done in connivance with the ruling BJP government. The BJP has however, denied the allegations and launched a counter-attack alleging that the NGO was first given permission by the previous Congress government.
In 2018, the Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust was granted permission to carry out house-to-house visits to create awareness on how to access online applications via the voters’ helpline mobile app. On November 2, the BBMP revoked this permission after receiving several complaints from residents that the NGO was collecting personal details while conducting door-to-door surveys by deputing field level workers. The BBMP has admitted that the personal information of the voters, including Aadhaar number, phone number and voter ID number, was uploaded on an app (Digital Sameeksha) developed by the Trust and not on the Election Commission’s voter registration app (Garuda) or voter helpline. The Opposition has accused the NGO of large-scale electoral fraud, malpractice and manipulation of voters’ lists.
The BBMP has registered two FIRs in Bengaluru against the NGO under sections 406 (criminal breach of trust), 419 (cheating by personation), 420 (cheating) and 468 (forgery) of the Indian Penal Code. On November 20, the police arrested Krishnappa Ravikumar, co-founder of the Chilume Trust, who had been absconding since the scandal broke out. The police has also arrested Kempegowda, one of the directors of the Trust and has detained the main software developer of the Digital Sameeksha app. Furthermore, notices have been issued to Revenue officials, who are in-charge of electoral roll revision and linking of Aadhaar card with electoral rolls. The police are also analysing the app to ascertain what data was collected and for whom it was meant. Electronic devices were recovered from the premises of the offices of the Trust in Malleswaram in west Bengaluru through which the police is attempting to recover the data which has potential for misuse.
Such mass collection of data is violative of the fundamental right to privacy as defined in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (retd.) vs Union of India. The judgment formally recognised the right to privacy as being a fundamental right stemming from the right to life and personal liberty, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The data which was collected by the NGO has potential for misuse, according to experts and election-watchers. Activist and electoral rolls analyst P.G. Bhat said that while a probe would act as deterrence, he was sceptical about data recovery. “Any number of copies of the data could be anywhere in the world on the cloud. It is practically impossible to prevent the data from falling into the hands of those who are ready to pay for it. Even before this scandal broke, there have been many improprieties carried out with data from the electoral rolls,” he said.