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Charting the road to accessible elections

RN Mohanty

On National Voters Day, let us revisit how the largest democracy is moving towards making elections inclusive.

In 2013, Paras Ram, 30, had no motivation to go and cast his vote in the assembly elections in his district Mahasamund, Chhattisgarh. In a very nonchalant way he shared that there was barely any facility or someone giving him the confidence that his locomotor disability will not be a hindrance in having him cast his vote with ease. What our democracy lost was the participation of a young voter and his right which he would be able to exercise only five years later.

In an era, where we have overcome bottlenecks like violence and booth capturing, participation deficit has become the major roadblock that plagues our election exercise. The largest democracy in the world will be a flawed one if it is unable to successfully pursuit the Election Commission’s mission of ‘leave no voter behind’. A thriving democracy is one where all its people are able to participate in one of the biggest event the country has to offer—elections. With the recently concluded assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan at the end of last year, the states have attempted to conduct elections in keeping with the theme of ‘Inclusion of People with disabilities (PwD’s)’.

What deterred a Paras Ram were not major issues but basics like lack of accessible toilets at the polling booth, ramps to access the voting room, wheelchairs on the location, ease of commuting and awareness measures on the availability of these facilities. Voter education is an integral part of the Election Commission of India.

Voter education is about informing people about their democratic rights and motivating them to participate fully in the process without any apathy towards the election course being non-inclusive. The theme of ‘Inclusion of PwD’s has been given a special focus in the Election Commission of India’s Strategic Plan 2016-2025. Besides, ‘Accessible Elections’ has been adopted as its central theme for last year’s National Voters’ Day celebrations.

The Systematic Voter Education for Electoral Participation (SVEEP) division became the nerve centre of this initiative. The marrying of voters’ education initiatives like SVEEP with civil society partnerships and NGO collaborations will pave the way for hosting a successful accessible elections.

Thirty-five-year old Paras Ram went out to cast his vote on 20th November, 2018 in Mahasamund owing to such a collaboration. The farmer from Chhattisgarh is a beneficiary under Sightsavers’ Social Inclusion Programme. The global development organisation’s programme supports people with disability through livelihood interventions and facilitates the formation and capacity building of Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) to carry out effective advocacy for their rights on all platforms and levels. Since the month of August, Sightsavers along with its local partner Samerth and SVEEP division in the state initiated an awareness drive on inclusion in the election process. A state level workshop for sensitisation of Election team towards accessible election was organised by Sightsavers and its local partner in the state.

A mapping of people with disabilities in Raipur and surrounding regions enabled logical segmentation of the voter population for designing specific communication strategies. A film in sign language prepared by the development sector organisation to sensitise the booth level election officers to communicate with persons having hearing impairment is a case in example for the recently concluded assembly elections. Among other measures, another film was made to create awareness among voters with special focus on persons with disabilities. The SVEEP Programme of the State Election Commission in Raipur and Mahasamund was thoroughly supported by Sightsavers. The PwD’s had vehicles labelled as ‘Divyang Rath’ for pick and drop services at the polling booths. Each booth had at least two wheelchairs and accessible washrooms for the people with disabilities. Student volunteers who were sensitised towards the needs of PwD’s were also present at the help desk at polling booths to assist voters in the best way possible. For the visually impaired who could read Braille, there were Braille-enabled Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for casting votes.

The apathy of many like Paras Ram in 2013 for participating in the election exercise was successfully turned down in 2018. What lies ahead of us is a bigger battle of the ballot with the 17th Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The Election Commission has to join hands with many more civil society organisations, the youth and evolve concept like ‘Matdan Mitra’ (Election Buddies) in conducting outreach activities to be successful in leaving no one behind.

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