Source: 
The Sentinel
https://www.sentinelassam.com/more-news/editorial/the-apex-courts-verdict-on-uploading-of-form-17c
Author: 
Udayan Hazarika
Date: 
29.05.2024
City: 

The Apex Court has recently made a smart decision (May 24, 2024) on the petitions filed by the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms and others.

The Apex Court has recently made a smart decision (May 24, 2024) on the petitions filed by the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms and others. The NGO, namely ADR, was demanding the publication of Form 17C of the Conduct of Election Rules 1961. The form is required to be filled out to fulfil the conditions laid down in Rules 49S and 56C (2) of the Conduct of Election Rules 1961. The Court has refused to interfere immediately with the provisions of existing laws on two grounds, namely, 1) the election process of the Lok Sabha is continuing and on the verge of completion, which requires tremendous effort, mammoth manpower, and other resources. So the Court did not want to divert the attention of the EC at this stage, and secondly, the relief sought by the NGO is already part of another application filed in the year 2019, which is pending. The Court held that “granting an interim prayer in an interlocutory application (IA) would amount to giving the final relief in the Writ Petition.”  The Court, therefore, adjourned the IA to be taken up by a regular bench after the election, implying thereby that the Court is in favour of detailed scrutiny of the matter after the election process is over.

The subject matter of the above IA indeed calls for a detailed examination in terms of Form 17C, which every electorate should know. This form is the basic document that preserves the outcome of the election details from the day of polling to the completion of the counting. Therefore, it is an indispensable document whenever an election petition is filed by a candidate. This form has two parts. In the first part, the directions given under Rule 49S form Part I, namely “Accounts of Votes Recorded.”  This rule entrusts the presiding officer of the polling centre to prepare an account of the votes recorded in Form 17C. He then puts it in a separate envelope, superscribed as Accounts of Votes Recorded in Form 17C. A true copy of the record prepared as such is given to the polling agents of the political parties present in the polling stations after the poll is over. The signature of the polling agent is obtained as proof of receiving the document. This form and the related documents, along with the voting machine, etc., are then handed over to the Returning Officer (RO), who finally deposits the same in the Strong Room, only to be opened on the day of counting. Thus, the filled-in Form No. 17C is not actually a confidential document, although it is believed to be so. The form and its contents are, in fact, accessible to all political parties through their agents. This task of handing over the copy to the polling agent of the party is done as mandated by Rule 49S. This rule, or, for that matter, any other rule, has not mandated the RO to deliver or publish the contents of Form 17C on the website as demanded by the NGO. The EC confirmed that this is not a new practice and has been under exercise for the last 60 years. Thus, any change in the procedure would call for the amendment of Rule 49S, enabling the EC to upload the filled-up form to their website.

The EC, however, made it clear that excessive disclosure of the data as sought by the NGO may complicate the matter, leading even to the stalling of the election process. The EC also pleaded that “a wholesome disclosure of Form 17C is amenable to mischief and vitiation of the entire electoral space. At the moment, the original Form 17C is only available in the Strong Room, and a copy is only available with the polling agents. Indiscriminate disclosure and public posting on the website increased the possibility of the images being morphed, including the counting results, which can then create widespread public discomfort and mistrust in the entire electoral process,” the EC said. Thus, the data contained in Form 17C is of a serious nature and gives the full details of the election process carried out at the concerned polling station. Let us have a look at the contents of Form 17C. The first part gives all the details of the polling station and the numbers of voters assigned to the polling station. Next is how many voters turned up for voting, how many have voted, the numbers of test votes done, and the details of the voters who have done these tests. The numbers of voters who gave Nota and the numbers of voters who were not allowed to vote are also taken into account to finally work out the actual votes polled. This figure and the figure that arrived after counting votes on the day of counting must tally. The form should also reflect detailed accounts of the items, like tendered ballot papers received and used, paper seals received and used or damaged, etc., during the polling process. Each and every item of this nature must be returned to the representative of the returning officer at the election office, along with the voting machines and control unit. Filling up Part I of Form 17C is not an easy task, especially when all the members of the polling party are newly engaged for the first time in the process. Sometimes, it takes more than 24 hours, too. Sometimes, even after completion of the filling up process, the polling party cannot reach the headquarters in time due to sudden floods, blocked roads due to falling trees, etc.

The second part of Form 17C contains information concerning the counting of the votes from the concerned polling booth. This Part II is designated as “Result of the Counting.” The detailed instructions for this part of the form are laid down in Rule 56C (2). At the time of submission of the Form 17C along with voting machines, this part II was kept blank. Because this part is to be filled up only with the data arrived at after counting the votes. The results of the counting are recorded against each candidate separately in the second part. The total votes received by all candidates must tally the figure shown in serial 5 of Part-I of Form 17C. After completion of filling out this part II, the form is signed by the counting supervisor and also by the candidates, their election agents, or their counting agents present. After completion of the filling up of Part-II of Form 17C, it is then signed by the concerned RO. It may be noted here also that the entries in Part II of Form 17C are then entered in the result sheet, which is in Form No. 20. The result sheet for Lok Sabha elections is also prepared in two parts. In the first part, the data shown is as per the polling booth, while in the second part, the votes received as per the assembly segment are shown.

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