Bommai in dock after private outfit accused of illegally mining Bengaluru voters’ data

Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, whose 16-month tenure has been mired in several controversies of alleged corruption, is now facing the music after allegations surfaced of a private outfit being engaged in illegally mining voters’ data under his watch.

The BJP-led state government has been accused of misusing a routine exercise done by the Election Commission ahead of state Assembly polls to create voter awareness and revision of the electoral rolls under SVEEP (Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation).

The contract for the same was bagged by a Bengaluru-based NGO, Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Institute, whose field agents were allegedly issued fake identity cards identifying them as Booth Level Officers (BLOs) of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP).

The NGO’s founders have another firm called DAP Hombale, which claims to be into electoral and political management.

The Assembly elections in Karnataka are due early next year, while the state government has been rapped by the courts for delaying the BBMP polls, whose council’s tenure got over in 2020.

The pandemic came in handy for the government to put off the BBMP polls, after which it cited the reason for further delay as the delimitation of the wards whose number stands at 243 from the earlier 198.

The Karnataka High Court has set December-end as the deadline for the BBMP to conduct the polls and an appeal challenging the deadline by the government is pending before the Supreme Court.

The NGO’s field agents initially started the process in Mahadevapura reserved Assembly constituency, one of the biggest ones in Bengaluru, in January this year. They approached the BBMP with the offer to undertake SVEEP free of cost. The Electoral Registration Officer of Mahadevapura gave permission to the NGO to assist BBMP with the revision of electoral rolls and create voter awareness.

Instead of confining themselves to creating awareness on voting, the NGO’s field agents allegedly made the voters share information such as their caste, gender, marital status, address, mother tongue, education and employment details along with their Aadhaar details and phone number.

The exercise did not stop at one constituency. The NGO approached the BBMP in August this year to extend their ‘services’ to all the 28 Bengaluru Assembly constituencies. Permission was granted to it within 24 hours of submission of its application.

According to The News Minute, which has been investigating the NGO’s activities for months, “The group also operates a voter survey app called ‘Digital Sameeksha’. Instead of educating the public about the Election Commission’s voter registration applications such as Garuda and Voter Helpline, Chilume’s workers uploaded voters’ personal information into Digital Sameeksha, including caste, religion, mother tongue, education, marital status and political grievances.” 

Following media reports about the NGO exceeding its brief under SVEEP, the Congress has taken up the issue, demanding the resignations of Bommai as he is in charge of Bengaluru city and C.N. Ashwath Narayan, the minister representing Malleshwaram Assembly constituency.

According to the Congress, one of the founders of DAP Hombale, Krishnappa Ravikumar, is said to be close to the minister.

On Friday, November 18, the Election Commission ordered an inquiry to be conducted by a senior IAS officer. However, the Congress has been demanding a probe by a HC judge.

Bommai, who initially dismissed the Congress’ charge of data theft as a “joke’”, withdrew the permission given to the NGO to continue the survey, while Ashwath Narayan threatened to file a defamation suit against the Congress for linking his name with Ravikumar.

The Congress had released photos of Ravikumar with the minister.

Speaking to the National Herald, Congress MLA and chairman of communications and social media wing of the Karnataka state unit Priyank Kharge said, “If Bommai thinks this is all a joke, why did he withdraw permission given to Chilume to conduct the survey once the allegations were made and ordered an inquiry. Regarding evidence, the decision to withdraw the permission proves that it was given to the company,” he added.

Kharge said the personal data of voters collected by the agency could be used for political and social profiling of persons. Explaining the same, he said that with the details collected, a person would be watched on social media regarding his political inclinations and the caste and income details would also add to this.

Congress MLC and chief spokesperson Nagaraj Yadav questioned Chilume’s offer to create awareness free of cost while it was paying its field agents Rs 1,500 per day. Besides, no background check of the NGO was done while permitting it to do the survey in all the 28 constituencies for which the approval came within 24 hours, he said. 

“Also, why did the government do the push-back of withdrawing the permission if it was satisfied with the NGO’s credentials,” he asked.

Yadav alleged that the NGO, after collecting the personal data of the voters, had uploaded it on a private app instead of submitting to the State Election Commission (SEC), which is an offence.

Meanwhile, the Congress held a protest before the SEC on Saturday.

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