Incidents of digital fraud in Bihar panchayat polls raise questions on biometric system
Bihar’s ongoing 11-phase panchayat polls, having introduced a biometric system for voters’ verification at the polling booths, may have curbed bogus voting, but instances of cyber fraud have raised a question mark on the system being foolproof.
The State Election Commission (SEC), holding the panchayat polls, has now taken a slew of measures to strengthen the system by putting strict checks on personnel handling the machines and capturing fingerprints of voters in the machines for verification and restricting the use of mobiles at the booths. This comes after reports of fraudsters taking out money from accounts of voters by taking their fingerprints wrongly in other devices emerged.
How it happened
In Munger district, during the ninth phase of polling on November 29, over a dozen voters were at wit’s end when they found to their dismay that money had been debited from their accounts to the tune of ₹5000-10000 just one hour after they had cast their votes at booth number 145 in village Charaun under Munger Sadar block falling under Muffasil police station.
The victims, including some women, immediately rushed to the booths and created a hue and cry. SDM, Sadar, Munger, Khushboo Gupta, after reaching the booth, questioned one Ravi Kumar handling the biometric machines and subsequently, unravelled how he was the one who had secretly taken the fingerprints of the voters on his phone before they had put their fingerprints in the biometric machine to cast their votes.
Police investigations found Kumar, now lodged in jail after the arrest, was working in one nearby common service centres (CSC) kiosk that provides various government-related services to villagers including cash transactions of a rural bank, which had its sole 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 the voters having accounts in the branch.
The bank accounts of villagers could be assessed by the agents working at the CSC (also known as cash, sale point) by getting a thumb impression and Aadhaar Card details easily. Fraudulent withdrawal of money is possible as the personnel have access to login IDs and also get OTP (one–time password) on behalf of the account holders, as told by those in the know of the functioning of the CSCs. For the biometric system used in panchayat polls, thousands of agents working at the CSCs across Bihar at the village level had been roped in.
“Ravi Kumar had an application loaded on his phone through which he managed to access accounts of the victims through fingerprints taken on his phone and Aadhaar card details. He made a login of the bank from one Guddu in Banka,” said SDM, Munger.
“He was taking fingerprints of the voters twice, once for the phone and second for the biometric machine to cast votes,” the SDM added.
DSP (headquarter) Munger, Alok Ranjan, who is now the acting SP, Munger, said investigations were still going on.
Incidentally, similar complaints of fraudulent withdrawal of money from bank accounts of around 30 persons came to light on the same day (November 29) at booth number 81 and 133 in Baisi block soon after the persons cheated had cast their votes during the ninth phase of polling. All the victims hailed from Surgaon, Kumharwa, Baisi, Mobehaa, Chairaiya and Rehuya panchayat in Baisi block in Purnea district, one of the poverty-stricken districts in the state bordering West Bengal.
An inquiry conducted by SP Purnea, Daya Shankar, submitted to DM, Purnea, Rahul Kumar mentions that of the 30 persons who lodged complaints of losing money through fraudulent withdrawals, six did not cast their votes. The report also said that on 29 November, money from the bank accounts of 27 people was fraudulently withdrawn while on November 28 three others were cheated.
“It has come to light that around four months back some unidentified persons took fingerprints of villagers in the name of providing loans. A few days ahead of the election, some microfinancing company officials got money transacted on behalf of small account holders by taking fingerprints from the CSP agents,” the report said.
According to the police report, one Mohammed Amir alias Khushro had been arrested a few months back on charges of fraudulently withdrawing cash from the accounts of some persons through the biometric system on the complaint in Amour police station dated 8.9.2021.
However, police have not made any arrests connected to fraudulent withdrawals of money from bank accounts of 30 persons in Baisi so far. “No arrests have been made so far. Investigations are going on,” said DM, Purnea.
Vulnerability of biometric system
The instances of fraudulent withdrawal of money from bank accounts of voters just after they cast their votes in the panchayat election has raised a few questions about the ‘foolproof’ biometric system to verify voters’ identity. Questions are being raised whether voters’ thumb impression could be misused.
Deputy director-general, department of telecom, Government of India, Atul Sinha, feels the biometric system is surely a good method for voters verification as it is linked with Aadhaar but sometimes thumb impression could be misused. “There are certain vulnerabilities as a thumb impression given wrongly or taken wrongly in any other device for ulterior motives could be misused by fraudsters. But, I want to say the biometric system for voters verification, once having recording thumb impression of any person, cannot be manipulated or misused”.
State Election Commissioner Dr Deepak Prasad too made a strong argument that the biometric system of voters’ identification used in panchayat polls was foolproof asserting that the case of fraudulent withdrawal of money in Munger did not happen from the voters’ biometric machine.
“It’s just an isolated instance in Munger where a person with ulterior motives manipulated the system by using his own device that was detected later. In Purnea, there is still no evidence that the fraudulent cash withdrawals were carried out through any manipulation of our biometric system because some of the fraudulent withdrawals were as big as ₹30000 to ₹40000. The upper limit of withdrawal from CSC points at the villages is only ₹10000,” he said.
Digital fraud through the thumb impression of voters in Munger and Purnea has brought the CSC personnel, deployed to handle biometric machines at the booths during panchayat election voting, under the scanner.
One, it has exposed how a CSC personnel used a device of his own to secretly take fingerprint impressions of voters having bank accounts and withdraw money. Secondly, it has raised a question as to whether it was right on part of the SEC to hire the CSCs agents (working on commission) to handle biometric machines at the booths.
SEC, Dr Prasad, maintained the poll panel decided to hire CSCs personnel for using biometric machines as the work required certain technical know-how. Also, CSCs personnel were working under government bodies as all the CSCs schemes are IT-enabled, e-governance services under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
“In every phase, 12,000 personnel of CSCs were roped in through randomization. But there has been an unfortunate case of cheating by one personnel. So, the percentage of personnel indulging in fraud is negligible and more or less, the system of biometric was not manipulated either. We decided to hire CSCs because they were working in government services. We did not hire any private persons for the work,” he said.
Prasad also said the Baisi case of fraud seemingly looks like a handiwork of some local gangs as well some elements who are against the biometric system because it has checked the bogus voting. “I cannot deny the possibility of a conspiracy in the works to defame the biometric system of voters verification because it has brought in transparency in the voting system and also checked bogus voting. On average, 12000 to 15000 persons have been caught trying to put bogus vote during the 10-phase election so far,” he said. The 11 phase panchayat polls will conclude on December 12.
Nonetheless, the SEC said the state poll panel had further strengthened the checks in place for personnel handling biometric machines at booths by issuing instructions to DMs that no CSCs personnel would be allowed to take phones and the login ID’s would be kept inactive on the voting day. “We feel such instances would not take place anymore,” Prasad said.
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