Why are NID services being transferred from the Election Commission?
On May 24, the Cabinet Division wrote to the Secretaries of Security Division of the Home Ministry and the Election Commission (EC) to amend the National Identity Registration Act (Jatiyo Parichoypotro Nibondon Ain), 2010 and transfer the personnel and infrastructure used for providing NID services, which includes 594 server-stations, to the Security Division. This decision of the government to transfer the NID services from the Commission to the Home Ministry has already created quite a bit of hue and cry. In speaking to journalists recently, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) opposed the government's decision, taken without consultation with the EC, on the grounds of violation of the Constitution. The Commissioner, Mahbub Talukdar, in a news briefing, warned that the decision would not only dismember the limb of the EC—it would also drive a final nail into its coffin.
The former Commissioner Dr Sakhawat Hossain and the legal luminary Dr Shahdeen Malik opposed the government's decision because it would complicate the EC's task of developing the electoral roll and undermine its independence. On the other hand, Minister for Liberation War Affairs, AKM Mozammel Haque, argued that the order had already been issued and the transfer of NID services to the Home Ministry had already begun. He also reasoned: "The EC's responsibility is to frame the electoral roll. It does not have the capability to provide NID services".
As a constitutional body, "The Election Commission shall be independent in the exercise of its functions and subject only to this Constitution and any other law", according to Article 118(4) of the Bangladesh Constitution. Such independence is for it to faithfully and independently perform the functions entrusted to it by the Constitution, one of which is to "prepare electoral rolls for the purpose of elections to... Parliament" (Article 119).
In the past, we witnessed many controversies regarding the electoral roll. During the Aziz Commission, there were allegations of about 1.2 crore fake voters, caused primarily by multiple registration of voters in different locations, leading to widespread violence and bloodshed. The matter was later adjudicated in the Supreme Court. Subsequently, under the stewardship of the Dr Shamsul Huda Commission, the Bangladesh Army prepared an electoral roll with pictures in 2007 with assistance from donors. The electoral roll that was prepared was audited by a well-known American organisation, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which found it to be accurate, attracting many international accolades. Thus, the electoral roll with pictures became a symbol of great national pride.
This electoral roll continues to be largely accurate, despite some minor problems caused by the failings of various Commissions. For example, the original electoral roll had about 14 lakh more women voters than men. However, due to the enumerators' failures to go door-to-door, as well as poor supervision by the Commissions, a "gender gap" developed in the electoral roll, with more men appearing than women. In addition, through political influence, some Rohingyas illegally became voters. However, such weaknesses in the electoral roll can easily be remedied by close supervision by the EC in the future.
We hope the government realises that the electoral roll and the NIDs are closely related. In fact, the NIDs originate from the electoral roll: voter identity cards and later NIDs were issued using the voter database, unlike in other countries. If the personnel and infrastructure are transferred to the Security Division, the EC will have no such facility to house the database and update the electoral roll. Thus, the Home Ministry will become the custodian of the electoral roll, creating serious complications.
Note that, as part of its nearly 5,000 personnel, the NID wing carries out other activities that the EC is mandated to perform. Thus, the Commission is unlikely to have extra manpower to transfer to the Home Ministry. In other words, to offer NID services, the government will have to hire new personnel and create parallel infrastructures, which it can possibly do by creating a database of the birth registration information presently collected at the grassroots.
The Liberation War Affairs Minister's claim that the EC has no capacity to provide NID services has no basis as it has issued, without any serious hitch, over 11 crore NIDs over the last 13 years, merely for the costs of printing and materials. Thus, we are getting the NIDs with a negligible marginal cost as a byproduct of the electoral roll.
An important question in this connection is—what could be the government's possible motive behind this decision? Are there political intentions behind it? The implementation of this decision will afford the government access to information of crores of citizens, which could be used politically and misused by law enforcement agencies. In addition, by imposing the requirement of police verification for issuing NIDs, opportunities for manipulation and corruption will open up. More seriously, the government may, through imposing conditions, deprive political opponents of their NIDs. Even under the present government, people have been deprived of jobs and of performing election duties because of alleged connections with opposition political parties.
The most serious concern is that the NID may be used for manipulating future election results. There are already concerns about influencing the electoral outcome through "digital tampering" as technologically inferior electronic voting machines, without "verifiable paper audit trails", could be used in future elections.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary at SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance.