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Small factory makes mark on huge poll

With India's elections starting on April 16, workers are putting in overtime to produce the bottles of indelible ink.

MYSORE // At 2pm the single blast of a siren reverberates over the roof of a sleepy factory complex in south India and 12 ink-splattered men walk out of a low-slung building in search of lunch. Since February, they have been working overtime, but no one here seems to complain. Instead, they say they are proud that their efforts will help to uphold that most basic of democratic principles - one man, one vote.

This band of men work at Mysore Paints and Varnish Ltd, a small enterprise in the state of Karnataka that produces all the indelible ink used to mark voters' fingers in India's parliamentary elections, which get under way on April 16. It is a mammoth task for a small company to make enough ink for India's 714 million eligible voters and to distribute it safely to 828,804 polling stations in a country of 3.36 million sq km with notoriously decrepit infrastructure.

And this year, to protect against fraud, Mysore Paints is producing a record quantity - more than double that used in the 2004 election - because voters will be marked with a line an inch long rather than a dot "I am happy to be participating in the democratic process," Ayub Pasha, a 23-year-old worker at Mysore Paints said in an interview as he loaded tiny bottles of ink onto a tray. The company has until the end of the week to complete the supplies for the election.

The larger ink mark is the latest weapon in a long struggle against voter fraud in India, where at least 63 candidates in this year's election have criminal records, including for rape and murder. Indian elections have been plagued by fraud since the 1970s, when the number of political parties began to multiply dramatically and candidates resorted to stuffing ballot boxes and even taking over polling booths by force.

The election commission introduced electronic voting machines at all polling stations for the first time five years ago for the last election; this year, 82 per cent of the electorate provided photographs of themselves before the vote. However, the commission said the ink from Mysore Paints remains the single most effective way to prevent voter fraud in the world's largest democracy - given its huge population, low literacy rates and limited state capacity.

"It's a simple and effective tool to use to see if someone has already voted without having to go into the records," said Rajesh Malhotra, a spokesman for the commission. "It's an external visible sign to everybody. It's cost effective, too." Mysore Paints was founded in 1937 by the maharaja of the princely state of Mysore to provide employment for the local population by exploiting the natural resins and dyeing agents found in the region's forests.

After independence, the factory became the property of the state government and in 1962, when voter marking was introduced in India, it was granted the exclusive licence to make the indelible ink. Today, about 100 people work at the plant, still housed in the original buildings. Now, however, the company exports to such countries as Mongolia, Canada, Ghana, Cambodia, the Maldives, South Africa, Nepal and Bhutan.

For security reasons, only one man at the plant knows the exact formula for making the ink, which is sold only for use in elections and is not otherwise commercially available. "One should have the highest risk if it were given to other parties," said the managing director of Mysore Paints, K J Suresh. "The point is to ensure the ink cannot be removed for 15 days. Any government likes to avoid fraudulent practices; the role of indelible ink is of highest importance."

He declined to list the ingredients of the ink, disclosing only that it contains silver nitrate, a chemical compound that stains the skin on contact with sunlight, along with "other dyes and chemicals". Until this year, the ink was applied as a small dot at the base of the nail on the middle finger of the left hand, but election officials decided that the mark was not visible enough and could be removed.

This year, therefore, voters will be marked with a line 2.5 centimetres long stretching from the tip of the middle finger of the left hand to the first joint, according to Mr Suresh and the election commission. That means that Mysore Paints is having to produce two million bottles each containing 10 ml of the ink, compared with 1.6 million bottles containing 5 ml for the last election, in 2004. The total cost is inevitably higher, at 120 million rupees (Dh8.7m), but the election commission said it is still far cheaper than any other option, accounting for less than one per cent of the total election budget.

The challenge for Mysore Paints is not just producing the extra quantities, but ensuring that the ink is not damaged, spoiled or tampered with on its long, hot journey from the factory to the voting booth. The ink is not affected by temperature, but because it reacts to sunlight, it is packaged in thick orange bottles that block ultraviolet rays, and are also airtight to prevent evaporation. The orange bottles work because orange is opposite to purple on the colour spectrum.

It is transported by a combination of air, rail, sea and lorry, often escorted by guards, to destinations as far away as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 1,200km off the eastern coast of India. The northern state of Uttar Pradesh, with 190m people, uses the most ink, requiring 286,000 bottles, while the smallest order - just 120 bottles - comes from the Lakshadweep Islands, population 60,500. The ink has a shelf life of six months, and any unused supplies have to be returned to the factory for disposal.

Mr Suresh and his colleagues said they know that India will some day switch to more sophisticated methods, such as biometric scanners, but that will not be for several years, if not decades. For the moment, they said there is no alternative to their secret formula. "The western style of conducting elections here is not viable because we have the world's second largest population," said C Hara Kumar, the company's marketing manager.

"We feel proud to be making this ink." @Email:hgardner@thenational.ae

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