Election Special: This Secret Formulation Has Been Hallmark of India's Democracy Since 1962

Science behind India's Elections: The mother of democracy uses 21st century technology to power the world's largest electoral exercise. Here are some little known and little understood technological facts for you to know this election season.

Dr Nahar Singh holds a vial of the indelible ink, the formulation of which only he knows.

New Delhi:

India, the world's largest democracy, has left an indelible mark on the world stage and thanks to the secret formulation of an ink, all voters in India get an indelible mark on their fingers. Today, voters flaunt this mark of freedom in selfies as the hallmark of India's robust democracy.

The water-based ink is a combination of silver nitrate, various dyes, and some solvents and once applied on the nail and skin within forty seconds it leaves a near permanent imprint.

Dr Nahar Singh, a chemist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), New Delhi, is currently the custodian of this exact formulation.

"It is a secret know how and a patent was never taken on it so that super secrecy remains on it. Since 1962, the secret has never been revealed," says Dr Singh.

Since the third general elections in 1962, all parliamentary elections have used indelible ink to mark voters who have voted. This is done to prevent double voting and impersonation.

The ink was developed way back when India gained Independence, at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), New Delhi. While NPL has no readily written record of its discovery, legend has it that the ink was developed by a chemist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, who later migrated to Pakistan. In India, the work was then carried forward by his colleagues, especially Dr ML Goel, Dr BG Mathur, and Dr VD Puri.

It was used first during the 1962 general elections and ever since, anyone who has voted in India has had their finger marked with the indelible ink. Dr Singh says "the beauty is that it is designed to be resistant to water, detergents, soaps, and other solvents."

NPL transferred the license and know-how to Mysore Paints and Varnish Limited (a Karnataka government undertaking) in 1962 and since then, MPVL, has been the sole authorised manufacturer of the Indelible Ink for the Election Commission of India.

For the 2024 elections, the MPVL has supplied ink worth Rs 58 crore, packed in nearly 28 lakh bottles, to the Election Commission of India. In the 2019 general elections, about 26,000 liters of the indelible ink were supplied to the election body.

Dr Singh says "The mark lasts for a few weeks on the fingernail till the nail grows out. However, it is not harmful to the skin."

According to the MVPL, the indelible ink is a special formulation that contains silver nitrate, which reacts with the chemicals on the skin and nails to leave a semi-permanent mark for several weeks. The indelible ink contains 10-18% silver nitrate and other ingredients. At this concentration, silver nitrate is supposed to be safe for the skin.

"We will be inking nearly a billion people," says Mohammed Irfan, CEO of MPVL, adding "The use of indelible ink developed by NPL has helped maintain the integrity of the electoral process in India and prevent voter fraud. It has been an important tool in ensuring the fairness and transparency of elections in the country."

This mark of freedom also helps power several other democracies. Till date, MPVL has exported the indelible ink on demand to about 35 countries, including Malaysia, Canada, Cambodia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Madagascar, Nigeria, Singapore, Dubai, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Denmark.

Mr Irfan says it is foolproof to the extent that "it fails only in a billionth of a billionth person."