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How a private firm came to be at the centre of Bengaluru data theft case

The Chilume Group has been accused of collecting private data of citizens in Bengaluru by impersonating civic officials

The allegations of voter data theft first emerged in September. (Representational Image)

Ahead of the 2018 assembly elections in Karnataka, former BJP MLA Nandish Reddy hired a private agency to carry out a survey in the KR Puram constituency of east Bengaluru to check if there were duplicate entries in the voters’ list for the region.

Reddy, who lost the election, says he was concerned that his then Congress rival, Byrathi Basavaraj, may have manipulated the voters’ list.

Reddy’s election affidavit states that he paid Rs 18 lakh for the work to Chilume Group, a non-profit organization which is currently being probed by the Bengaluru police and the Election Commission over alleged theft of voter data.

The allegations of voter data theft first emerged in September after a local NGO in Bengaluru raised concerns over workers of Chilume Group impersonating Booth Level Officers of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to create awareness about the ECI’s Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation programme (SVEEP).

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Concerns were also raised by an online media forum, The News Minute, over the alleged collection of private data of citizens, including Aadhar numbers, caste, income and other details by Chilume.

The Karnataka government led by chief minister Basavaraj Bommai was forced to act and order an investigation on November 17 after the opposition Congress party accused the BJP of trying to manipulate voters’ list ahead of the 2023 state elections.

The Congress has alleged that the Chilume Group was awarded the contract at the behest of BJP leaders in Bengaluru. The party fears tampering with the voters’ list to favour the ruling dispensation.

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“The sum and substance of this conspiracy is to deny the ordinary voter his right to vote and to tamper the electoral list by surreptitious means. Responsibility lies first and foremost with the in-charge minister of BBMP, Basvaraj Bommai (Karnataka chief minister). He must resign or be sacked forthwith to ensure a free and fair investigation,” the Congress said in a statement.

Action taken against Chilume

Two FIRs at separate police stations have been registered by BBMP officials over the alleged fraud and impersonation of BLOs by workers hired by `Chilume’ for data collection. The charges include breach of trust, impersonation, cheating and forgery. An investigation headed by R Srinivas Gowda, the deputy commissioner of police from Bengaluru central region, is underway and the police have arrested 10 people in the case so far including the director of Chilume Enterprises, Ravikumar Krishnappa, and three others from the firm. Four BBMP revenue officials have also been apprehended for facilitating the fraud.

Police are also trying to establish if senior BBMP officials, including IAS officers, had a role in awarding the contract to Chilume within a day of a requisition by the NGO offering to do the work for free.

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The State Election Commission has directed the District Election Officer (DEO) and BBMP commissioner Tushar Girinath to conduct a probe into the allegations of illegal voter data collection and usage.

The BBMP has placed under suspension four revenue officials accused of playing a part in issuing fake identity cards to Chilume workers who posed as BLOs.

The civic body has also cancelled the permission granted to Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust for conducting the house-to-house survey in Bengaluru under an August 20 order.

On November 25, the Election Commission of India directed the chief secretary of Karnataka and the state chief electoral officer to suspend and launch an enquiry against two BBMP officials who were in-charge of the constituencies where the alleged illegalities were reported.

The ECI has also directed Bengaluru’s regional commissioner Amlan Aditya Biswas to expedite “an administrative inquiry regarding the complaint of misuse of voter registration awareness activities and alleged data capture by the private entity in BBMP area.”

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Bengaluru data theft case: The genesis of the controversy

On January 28, the Electoral Registration Officer for Mahadevapura assembly constituency, located on the eastern fringe of the city and represented by BJP MLA Arvind Limbavalli, granted permission to the Chilume Trust to assist the BBMP in carrying out the SVEEP programme in the area. The permission was reportedly given at the local level on the basis of involvement of the Chilume Trust in SVEEP programmes during the 2018 assembly polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and the NGO’s long association with the BBMP.

However, on August 20, 2022, the District Electoral Officer for BBMP issued an order allowing the NGO to conduct SVEEP across all the 28 assembly constituencies falling under the city limits of BBMP. As per the August 20 order, the trust could go to the houses of voters and create awareness on the importance of elections, registration of voters and linking of voter ID cards to Aadhaar through the Garuda app. The visits were to be done with BLOs, electoral registration officers and assistant EROs of the Bengaluru district election officer (DEO).

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Following allegations of fraud and impersonation by workers hired by Chilume for the survey, BBMP chief commissioner and DEO Tushar Girinath cancelled the permission given to the NGO and said in a note that the trust violated the conditions of the agreement.

“The people from the trust who impersonated BLOs are accused of collecting information like Aadhar numbers, type of employment, religion, caste, age, mother tongue, marital status, phone numbers, addresses, voter id numbers and emails (of voters). This data was not shared with the BBMP,” state officials said.

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According to Bengaluru regional commissioner Amlan Biswas, the January 28, 2022 order of the ERO of Mahadevapura constituency allowing Chilume to carry out SVEEP was issued on the condition that Booth Level Officers (BLOs) would accompany volunteers carrying out the activity to avoid irregularities. ” The ERO violated his own order by issuing identity cards (BLO cards) to volunteers,” Biswas said.

The Chilume Group

The Chilume Group is registered in the Nelamangala region of the Bengaluru Rural district. It was launched as a non-profit organisation called Chilume Educational, Cultural and Rural Development Trust in 2008. The trust offered to conduct surveys for state agencies on subjects like health and education.

Questions have been raised over its links with a private firm called DAP Hombale, which started in 2018 and changed its name to Chilume Enterprises, a pre-poll survey and data mining firm, in January 2022. “Chilume is not a trust, it is a private firm,” a state official said.

Data from the registrar of companies reveal that Chilume Enterprises was launched in January 2018 under the name of DAP Hombale by Ravikumar Krishnappa, 45, who has been arrested by the police in the alleged voter data theft and BLO impersonation case. The records for the company show a steady rise in revenue in the last four years. The firm recorded a revenue of Rs 1.58 crore in 2018-2019, Rs 3.38 crore in 2019-20, Rs 1.71 crore in 2020-21 and Rs 3.38 crore in the fiscal year 2021-22 with profits rising from Rs 6.97 lakh in 2019 to Rs 30.95 lakh in 2020, to Rs 1.21 crore in 2021, and Rs 1.70 crore in the last fiscal.

The company’s balance sheets show that it had nearly Rs 1.34 crore as trade receivables (the amount billed by a company to its customers) at the end of 2019 from an entity identified as ‘deputy commissioner’ in the Karnataka government, and Rs 1.13 lakh from the ‘joint commissioner’ at the end of 2020. The firm also had a trade receivable of Rs 15.74 lakh from the Government of India’s CSC-E Governance services at the end of the 2021 fiscal.

“The Chilume Trust has been working with several government agencies for conducting surveys linked to health and education since 2008. They have been associated with the BBMP for a long time. They were recently paid a large sum of money for some surveys,” a senior police official said.

While the trust offered to carry out the SVEEP programme free of cost for the BBMP in 2022, the opposition has questioned the source of funds used by Chilume to pay its staff.

“While the company offered to conduct the program for free, each worker who collected information was paid Rs 1,500 per day,” state Congress president D K Shivakumar said on November 17.

The political connections of Chilume Group

The Congress has alleged that Chilume Enterprises director Ravikumar Krishnappa is closely associated with Karnataka’s Higher Education and IT/ BT minister Dr C N Ashwathnarayan. Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala released a picture on November 17 of the minister participating in a birthday event organised for Chilume’s group director. “All the companies permitted to collect information are located in Malleshwaram, a constituency represented by Ashwathnarayan,” Surjewala alleged.

Ashwathnarayan denied any links between him and the Chilume Trust or its allied firm DAP Hombale.

“My brother also runs a firm called Hombale. He is involved in film production. This organisation has made films that have been liked across the country and has made us proud. There is no connection between the firm called Hombale named by the BBMP and the firm belonging to my brother. We cannot ask people not to give their firm a certain name or not to operate in a specific area,” he said.

Referring to the photograph released by Surjewala, the BJP minister said: “May be the person has been photographed with me. In public life, we meet with a lot of people for various reasons.”

Former BJP MLA Nandish Reddy stood by his declaration in the 2018 election affidavit and said that he paid Rs 18 lakh to the Chilume Group between 2016-2018 to conduct “a check on whether the then MLA was indulging in malpractices to change voter demographics.”

“I had also complained to the then election commissioner that votes were being manipulated in the KR Puram constituency. To substantiate my claim, I got a survey based on voters list from 2016 to 2018 done. These people (Chilume Group) worked with me in my constituency. I paid their fees. There is nothing more to it,” Reddy said, adding that the “data provided by these agencies that carry out surveys are not reliable for election strategy.”

“The suburban constituencies of Bengaluru such as KR Puram and Mahadevapura have a large number of migrant workers, so political leaders want to ensure that there are no duplicate votes,” he said.

A state official said that voter data is sought by politicians to understand the demographics of a constituency and to devise strategies to win elections in regions with migrant populations.

The investigations

Deputy Commissioner of Police (Central) R Srinivas Gowda said that the ongoing investigation was restricted to the alleged fraud committed during the survey carried out by Chilume.

A police source said: “The primary focus of the probe has been on the impersonation and forgery aspect. Whether the data that was collected was sold to someone, which would amount to breach of trust, or whether Chilume workers were given access to the Garuda App to carry out deletions and additions of voters, which is a serious issue, has not been established yet.”.

Bengaluru regional commissioner Amlan Biswas claimed that voter data has not been tampered with. “Even if they were collecting data, getting into the Garuda app (of the election commission) won’t help them. It may not be that useful to them to predict an election or to assess how people vote,” he said.

“The Garuda app can be accessed only by the EROs as they are equipped with a digital key to use the app. But if they (Chilume) had access to the key, then it is a serious matter,” Biswas added.

Incidentally, Chilume Enterprises owns an app called Digital Sameeksha, which is reportedly used for analysing constituencies using voter data. The balance sheets of DAP Hombale/ Chilume Enterprises show that the `Digital Sameeksha’ app has been a money-spinner for the firm over the last few years. The firm showed a ‘trade receivable’ of Rs 76.53 lakh for ‘Digital Sameeksha’ in the fiscal year ending March 2020 and Rs 57.51 lakh for March 2021.

“The company (Chilume Enterprises) also runs a voter survey app called Digital Sameeksha. It claims that the app has a varied set of client base of political parties, MPs, MLAs, corporators and aspirants,” the Congress party said last month while linking the voter data collection activity of Chilume Enterprises to the larger election management strategy of the BJP.

First published on: 06-12-2022 at 13:50 IST
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