TNM investigation: Armed with govt order, Bengaluru NGO steals voter data

The data stolen from citizens as part of the operation has enormous commercial value. For a politician looking to win an election by any means, this data is priceless.
Chilume agents doing voters survey in Bengaluru with BBMP orders
Chilume agents doing voters survey in Bengaluru with BBMP orders

In a major privacy breach which could potentially corrupt the entire election exercise, a private NGO has covertly collected personal information from thousands of voters in Bengaluru by making their field agents pose as government officials. The data theft was enabled by a Government Order that allowed the NGO to ‘create awareness’ about voter rights and revision of electoral rolls. The NGO in question is linked with an election management company through one of its directors, bringing up serious questions about why the data was collected and who will benefit from it. A joint investigation over nearly three months by six journalists from TNM and the Kannada outlet Pratidvani, has led to the discovery of this data theft that was carried out even as Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and Election Commission (EC) officials looked the other way.

The NGO, Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Institute, had been given permission by the BBMP to conduct SVEEP (Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation), a special voter awareness drive by the Election Commission to revise the electoral rolls ahead of the Karnataka Assembly polls. But we have found that they misused the order and issued fake ID-cards to hundreds of their field agents, identifying them as Booth Level Officers (BLO) of the BBMP. A BLO is a grassroots official who is supposed to be a government, quasi-government or retired government servant. BLOs are also required to be residents of the polling station to which they are assigned.

BLO cards issued to field workers

BLO cards issued to field workers

These field workers made voters share personal information such as their caste, mother tongue, marital status, age, gender, employment and education details along with their Aadhaar number, phone number, address, Voter ID number and email address. Voters were also made to answer subjective questions about the performance of their elected representatives.

The data stolen from citizens as part of the operation has enormous commercial value and private corporations would vie to pay top dollar for it. For a politician looking to win an election by any means, this data is priceless. 

But the illegality in this exercise does not end there.

The BBMP hurriedly cancelled the permission to the NGO after our reporters started following up on the case. The events that led to the cancellation and the attitude of the officials is part of a separate story in this investigative series. What is intriguing is that the officials do not make any effort in their cancellation order to explain the reasons for the withdrawal of the permission given to Chilume. Both BBMP and EC officials confirmed to TNM that despite the cancellation order, the data has not been retrieved from Chilume and its subcontractors. 

Chilume and ‘election management’

According to official communication sourced by our team, Chilume approached the BBMP saying they wanted to offer free voluntary service for SVEEP. Based on Chilume’s offer, on January 29 this year, the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) of the Mahadevapura Assembly constituency granted Chilume permission to assist the BBMP in the revision of electoral rolls and to conduct awareness about voting, subject to a series of conditions. 

The order of the ERO, a copy of which is with us, said that Chilume “should not be associated with any political organisation.” When we did a simple background search of the people behind the NGO, we found that they also run companies that manage election campaigns for political parties. 

Chilume, the NGO, was registered in July 2013 by five individuals, including Ravikumar Krishnappa who hails from Nelamangala. Ravikumar and two others also started a private company called DAP Hombale in December 2017. While no documents related to DAP Hombale could be found on the Ministry of Corporate Affairs website, in January 2018, the three directors registered another company called Chilume Enterprises Pvt Ltd.

This private company specialises in event management and election management and its website says it does “Electronic Voting Machine and counting hall preparation, CCTV installation, webcasting and check-post preparation" for political parties. The company also offers “temporary polling personnel from virtually every branch of government.” Its website says, “You need to search for these people in different places, we help you in choosing all the staff.”

Alarmingly, from the same room in a building in Bengaluru’s Malleshwaram, 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. 

The Digital Sameeksha app is available on the Android PlayStore but one cannot download it without logins. Cached screenshots of the app show that it facilitates a house-level survey of voters. This app is also registered at the same address in Malleshwaram that houses Chilume Trust. Chilume private company — the election management company — is on the next street.

The promoters of the Digital Sameeksha app say in their sales pitch, “We have a varied client base consisting of political parties, as well as individual MPs, MLAs, corporators, local bodies and aspirants. Instead of promising a hypothetical winning formula we equip our clients with tools and services to manage their day-to-day activities and help them in meticulous preparation for elections.” 

Nandan, one of the field workers deployed by Chilume, told TNM that they were told to use the Digital Sameeksha app. “We wore BBMP ID cards and collected details like name, phone number, voter ID, Aadhaar number, caste, religion, marital status, employment and addresses from the houses we visited. We uploaded them in an application called Digital Sameeksha.”

Screenshot of Digital Sameeksha app

Without as much as a background check, on August 20, the permission to Chilume was expanded to include all 28 assembly constituencies within BBMP limits. The order signed by the BBMP Commissioner, who also happens to be the District Election Officer, gave Chilume permission “…for the work of going to houses of the voters and creating awareness about the election, and about registration of voters, and about linking voter ID card to the Aadhaar card via Voters Helpline App and Garuda App.”

Following the pattern of the permission granted by the Mahadevapura ERO in January, this order too warned that the agency should not be associated with any political party or receive payment from them. 

Far from keeping to the conditions, the NGO expanded the illegal data collection to the entire city and started hiring even more people by sub-contracting manpower to other agencies. 

Impersonation of government officials

TNM has a copy of an unsigned MoU between Chilume and another NGO that revealed the impunity with which the entire operation was carried out. In the MoU, Chilume says that the workers will be provided with BLO ID-cards and would have to fill out forms such as the Form 6 and Form 7 in which voters are required to provide their Aadhaar number, voter ID number, e-mail ID, mobile number and signature. 

Through several weeks of painstaking fieldwork, our investigative team managed to establish contact with the field agents hired by Chilume. The workers not only showed us the fake ID cards that were issued to them but also revealed that they were misled into believing that they were part of a legitimate government exercise. The young men hailing from small towns and villages in different parts of the state told us that they were lured with the promise of salaries ranging between Rs 15,000 and Rs 25,000, depending on how much data they collected.  

Many of them had quit the job over unpaid wages and complained of horrible working conditions. Their harrowing experience is part of a separate story in this investigative series.

Ranjith, an unemployed 19-year-old from Mulbagal in Kolar, who failed his class 12 examinations, was one of the workers hired through a sub-contractor. "We also carried out booth-level mapping surveys by drawing maps by hand and marking out each individual unit based on whether it was a commercial or residential property, and whether it was vacant or occupied," Ranjith told TNM. 

The permission to Chilume by the BBMP clearly stated that the NGO’s volunteers should conduct the activity in the presence of the BLOs and revenue officials. Based on our field visits, we can independently confirm that the workers deployed by Chilume were not accompanied by government officials when they went door-to-door collecting the data. 

In fact, in neighbourhoods like Kodigehalli and Garudacharpalya they were chased away by residents who became suspicious of their credentials. In most cases, the actual BLOs employed by the government had no clue that such an activity was being conducted in their jurisdiction. “There have been occasions where people resisted giving their personal information to us. But we were told that we should convince people through our personal skills and tell them that our higher authorities have asked us to do this exercise for the entire booth,” Nandan Halavagali, one of the field workers deployed, said. 

The big question that emerges is what is the exercise for?

Several field workers TNM spoke to showed detailed maps of the areas they surveyed and marked out each individual unit based on whether it was a commercial or residential property, and whether it was vacant or occupied. We managed to source copies of these maps and found that they had been marked out in incredible detail. 

One of the maps created by Chilume workers

One more map made by Chilume workers

Meanwhile, a section of voters from Bengaluru's Shivajinagar area told TNM that people claiming to be booth level officers had turned up at their homes in the pretext of updating the voter’s list and deleting voters. This was brought to light by Geetha V, an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker. Geetha, the booth level officer of the area, was informed by residents about the voter verification done by unknown persons. Read our detailed story here.

As we investigated similar claims from other parts of the city, we stumbled upon a complaint filed against Chilume by another rural development NGO called Samanvaya Trust which had supplied manpower for the survey. In the complaint filed with the BBMP and the Election Commission on September 20, Sumangala, the president of Samanvaya Trust, alleged that her workers had not been paid by Chilume. She also questioned the authorities about the legality of the exercise and sought to know how a private agency could collect personal data from voters. The BBMP cancelled their permission to Chilume based on this complaint.

Despite the gravity of the violations, Ravikumar Krishnappa, the main person behind Chilume and the election management company, appeared confident that he had done no wrong when we caught up with him. He said that there has been an amendment in the law which permits private agencies to collect voter data including the forms 6 and 7.

The exchange with Ravikumar became all the more fascinating when he claimed that he had been doing the same data collection work since 2014. He claimed that he had once been arrested and remanded to judicial custody for this but was released and exonerated when it was legally proven that he had not committed any crime. These claims could not be independently verified by us.

Things became murkier in the final days leading to the publication of this report. As we struggled to get explanations from the officials, we came across many sources who claimed that Ravikumar was linked to a politician from a particular political party. While we could not independently verify these claims, we did receive an invitation to negotiate with the promoters of Chilume from a person who bragged about having powerful political connections.

Many questions remain unanswered at this point which are beyond the reach of a journalistic enquiry. If Chilume was not charging any money from the government for this work, where did they find the funds for this massive activity? The fact that the same people who service politicians also run an NGO which illegally compiles voters’ databases raises disturbing questions about the entire election machinery. Also, if the data collected by Chilume has not been submitted to the BBMP, then where is the data? At whose behest was it collected?

This story is a part of TNM’s series on Voter Fraud Investigation.

Read all the related stories here.

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