Thursday, November 27, 2008

Launch of EI in Delhi

Empowering India was unveiled to an audience of about 40 people by Mr TN Chaturvedi, the former governor of Karnataka. It was quite apt that an event focussing on democracy was held while the terrorists struck Mumbai the night before. The programme began by observing a minutes’ silence in solidarity with the victims of terrorism. Ballot, after all, is a more potent weapon than the bullets of terrorists.

Empowering India was born out the desire to better understand the Indian electoral system, and to empower the voters with information to enable them to make more informed choice at the ballot box.

Mr Chaturvedi, a former Comptroller and Auditor General of India, launched the web site. The various features of the website were demonstrated to the audience present. At one level, the web site is seeking to reach out to voters in every constituency with information about their own candidates. At another level, an increasing array of analytical tools is available for more serious students and political analysts. Mr Chaturvedi felt that by making the information widely available, it may be possible to bring about a degree of transparency and accountability.

Mr TS Krishnamurthy, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, was the key note speaker, recounted the need for electoral reforms, and said the next steps should be to disseminate the information widely, and to make the information available in major regional languages. He also called for building an active network of citizens and civil society organisations to help discuss and disseminate the information to citizens at the local level. Dr Ashok Desai, economist and columnist, said that the web site has the potential to emerge as a very significant tool for political awareness. He noted that other indicators, such as developmental profiles of constituencies, could further add value to this initiative.

Around 50 people spread over a dozen locations from Orissa in the East to Rajasthan in the West, have been helping to compile the candidate affidavit information using the online data entry system. The aim is to continuously strive to decentralise data gathering and dissemination efforts and to involve local citizens and to make the site available in one or two regional languages as soon as possible.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Launch of EI in Hyderabad

It was a full house at the launch of the Empowering India website at the conference hall of CESS. Over 100 people participated including about 25 persons from the print and electronic media, students, academics, senior government officials, former civil servants, young persons interested in joining politics, and members of various non-government organizations (NGOs).

Mr Barun Mitra briefly explained why Liberty Institute had launched and invited Mr. Lyngdoh to formally release the website in Andhra Pradesh. Thereafter, Mr Mitra gave a detailed demonstration of the site and emphasized on its main features namely,

  • Comprehensive compilation of candidate and election results information;
  • Comparability of information across time;
  • Latest features including a set of election analysis tools;
  • A powerful new feature called “Build Query” where the user can design a query as per his/her own requirements;
  • Future plans of compiling constituency information and performance indicators for MPs and MLAs and expansion of the website to include information from the municipal council and panchayat elections;
  • Need for local partnerships to compile and disseminate the information.

Mr. Lyngdoh commented that he was very impressed with the flexibility of website and suggested that over a period of time, we could also compile information about each candidate’s election expenditure coupled with remarks from the Election Commission’s expenditure monitoring teams. Later in the afternoon, Mr. Lyngdoh interacted personally with the audience members and explained the political dynamics involved in the state assembly and national level elections. He also responded to many queries concerning a uniform voter identity card and deletion of obsolete names from voter lists. Mr. Lyngdoh promised to stay in touch after the event was over.

Dr IV Subba Rao, the Chief Electoral Officer for the state of Andhra Pradesh also lauded the initiative and explained some of the features he had recently introduced for voters in Andhra Pradesh. This includes an online facility for verifying whether the individual’s name is on the voter list, easy availability of voter registration forms, and the facility of drop boxes in shopping malls and at petrol filling stations to submit the completed voter identification card application forms. Dr Rao also mentioned that they are working towards making post offices the nodal agencies for voter registration. The need for simplifying voter registration system was underscored by Mr Lyngdoh, who confessed that after his retirement from the post of CEC, it took him over three years to get himself registered as a voter in Andhra Pradesh. With regards to, Dr Rao said that it is important to make information accessible for the public if true transparency is to be achieved. In this light, had achieved something remarkable. He promised to cooperate in providing any information that we may need in future.

Dr N Jayprakash Narayan, a former civil servant, and now head of the Loksatta Party spoke subsequently on the issue of analyzing the disclosed information within a larger context instead of sensationalizing the revealed information. He was a key player in the public campaign ten years ago that had led the Election Commission to introduce a system of disclosure of personal information by candidates to political office, which was subsequently endorsed by the Supreme Court. Dr Narayan also called on the people to be more active in bringing that information into the public domain which elected representatives try to conceal.

Dr N Tulasi Reddy, former MP and spokesperson for the Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, spoke about how the disclosure policies instituted by the Supreme Court of India had in fact made a difference to the quality of the candidates who are now contesting the elections. He noted that the in the past five years, there has been a slight decline in the percentage of legislators with criminal background in Karnataka, for instance. He expressed optimism about the manner in which the Indian democracy has been maturing in recent times. His comments revealed that political parties are aware of and adapting to the new mechanisms which are being introduced to make parties and candidates more transparent and accountable to the public.

Prof CV Raghavulu, former Vice Chancellor of Acharya Nagarjuna University, summarized the main points that were raised by the panelists, and he urged the people to be vigilant and to participate in holding their elected representatives accountable.

Later the group discussed how the participants present would like to be involved with and to explore the possibilities of disseminating the information uploaded on the site. One of the main suggestions that came up during this session was to host the site in regional languages so that more people could access this information. It was also suggested that some of the audience members could establish personal rapport with the district returning officers in order to obtain affidavit information as soon as it is filed. Some of the audience members also spoke of holding the politicians accountable for the promises they have made. Two-three organizations immediately committed to assisting with information compilation and dissemination. Their commitment implies that we may be able to digitise about half of the 42 parliamentary constituencies in Andhra Pradesh in the coming general elections.

In the last session, Mr C Arjun Rao, a retired civil servant and special Chief Secretary to the government of Andhra Pradesh, spoke about the need to elect good candidates. He impressed on the people to be part of the efforts that was undertaking, and particularly to disseminate the information on the site to the poorer voters.

Empowering India will plan a follow-up strategy to continue communication with the persons who had attended this launch. We also hope to organize meetings in a few of the districts in Andhra Pradesh in order to involve more people to be part of the information compilation and dissemination during the national and the state assembly elections in 2009.

We were greatly encouraged by the response of the participants and the local media. Reports of the event have been published in a wide range of publications, including national newspapers like The Hindu and the Indian Express, news agency like the Press Trust of India (PTI) and in local Telugu newspapers. The event was also relayed on national and regional television channels.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Launch of EI in Cochin

The Launch of in Kerala was organised on 8th November, 2008 at Ashirbhavan, Cochin, in partnership with the Centre for Public Policy Research. It was attended by eminent personalities from different fields like Shri PA Rajan, eminent journalist and political commentator, Dr G Gopakumar, Head of Dept, Political Science, Kerala University, representatives of a number of NGOs from different parts of Kerala, and students from different colleges.

Before the launch of the website, Mr Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute introduced the project to the gathering. He shared with them his experience, his thoughts and what led Liberty Institute to initiate the project called – Empowering India. was formally launched by Dr Sebastian Paul, Member of Parliament. He commended Liberty Institute and Centre for Public Policy Research for this initiative and said that every voter has the right to be able to access as much information about their political representatives and an initiative like this would make the democratic exercise more fruitful. He also thought that such a website would be helpful both for the general public and to the candidates contesting for elections. He added that the website is more relevant in cities like Ernakulam where ordinary people have access to the internet.

Later, Mr Mitra took the audience through the details that are available in the website. He showed how a voter could find out about the various candidates in their own constituencies. The voter could also see the details of the affidavits filed by candidates giving details of his assets, liabilities, educational qualification, and if they face any criminal charge in any court of law. The audience saw with interest the affidavit details of Dr Sebastin Paul filed in 2004.

Prof. KV Thomas, Member of Legislative Assembly, felicitated the gathering and said that in a vibrant democracy people should be aware of the activities of their leaders in the Parliament and state Assembly. He said that this website is a novel attempt in providing easy access to the public to get more information and thereby know their representatives better.

Mr Dhanuraj D, Chairman, CPPR delivered the vote of thanks and shared his experience on working with Liberty Institute. He also mentioned what role CPPR would like to play for the future prospects of the website in the collection and dissemination of the information. He said that CPPR wants to take the information in the website to the masses so that they can make an informed decision regarding their leaders.

The launch was followed by a discussion on the prospects of the websites in the future and how to make the website more effective and efficient in reaching out to the public. Dr Gopakumar moderated the discussion and also shared his experiences being a political scientist and as someone who is well versed with the political conditions in Kerala. Many questions were posed to Mr Mitra on the website, its relevance, scope and usefulness. The key question that cropped up repeatedly was, given that only about 40 million people in have access to internet, how relevant a web based system such as this was in the Indian context.

Prof K C Abraham, (retd.) mentioned that this project would definitely bring about more accountability and transparency. He also said that the amount of money spent by candidates on electioneering should also be kept track of and made known to the public. Various topics were covered in the discussion, including the comparison of American political process to that of India. At the closure, Mr. Mitra called on the participants to join hands to gather and disseminate information among the voters.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


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