Polling Pains

Posted by Amba Salelkar at Apr 30, 2014 09:00 AM |
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While there has been a lot of outrage and furore over the dropping of names of eligible and previously registered persons from voter's lists across the Country, what hasn't received a lot of coverage is the large scale apathy towards the needs of voters with disabilities across the Country.

While Delhi noticed some improvement over the terrible conditions during the State Assembly Elections earlier this year, other States continued to plead ignorance to even Supreme Court approved guidelines on accessibility in elections. In Chennai, the State Election Commission held a meeting with persons with disabilities, facilitated by the Office of the State Commissioner for Disabilities, a month prior to the elections. A number of grievances were raised, ranging from non implementation of the Guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in 2007 (which were issued thanks to the laudable efforts of the Disability Rights Group), to the lack of efforts to include persons with disabilities housed in institutions, to provision of sign language interpreters and large print materials for persons with low vision. The Election Commission undertook to, at the very least, implement the mandate of the Court, but election day brought out a different story altogether – polling booths were not provided with ramps, and where there were ramps they were too steep to navigate. Polling booth officials and police officials were largely reported to be apologetic and friendly, but the inconvenience, danger, and humiliation associated with having one's wheelchair lifted (or worse, being lifted yourself) in order to exercise a constitutional right could not be excused by smiles and shrugs.

There are complaints by voters who are blind of not being given a braille list of candidates and not being allowed to feel the braille stickers on the side of the EVMs. For persons with disabilities, the Conduct of Election Rules allow for them to cast their votes with the assistance of another person – a person who may not be of their choice, but who still gets to enter the booth with them and thus creates an exception from the right to “secret ballot”. While some voters who could use braille found centres in Bombay to be accessible on their own, the question still remains as to what happens to those voters who are blind or have visual impairment who cannot use braille. In such cases, wouldn't a universally designed “talking” EVM with a headphone help solve most problems?

It is additionally problematic when, instead of highlighting issues of inaccessibility, the media finds it more convenient to glorify persons being physically lifted, or seen crawling to election booths. Such images perhaps serve to encourage people to vote (“if they do, so should you”) but in another sense they make it difficult to demand dignified access to the polling booth and reflect negatively on persons with disabilities who opted to turn away from the electoral process that refused to accommodate them. The inexplicability, for example, of polling booths in Mumbai to be located on the first floor of a building without a lift, clearly shows that for the election authorities in India, disability, or even age, isn't even a factor to be considered in assessing the situation for potential voters. This being the situation in metropolitan cities – feedback from rural voters is something yet to be gathered.

The stark reality of even 7 year old Supreme Court mandated guidelines on accessibility not being followed through gives little hope for when elections will be truly accessible for India's disabled, and at the same time, makes one wonder whether alternatives, particularly in ICT, can be explored by the Election Commission towards a more inclusive 2019 General Elections. An examination of the political manifestos of the major political parties in India does reveal a lack of serious consideration of the needs of persons with disabilities. Imagine how many people with disabilities eventually get to vote after excluding those who cannot access the booth on account of physical or communicational barriers, or even the process of recognition as a voter—thanks to perceived legal barriers on persons of 'unsound mind' in the Representation of People Act, 1950, and the procedural ambiguity (necessity of address proof, etc.) of reaching out to institutionalized persons. For this small fraction of the population, there may be little incentive for political parties to come up with a comprehensive political strategy. Steps by the Election Commission to empower every person with a disability as a voter, therefore, is an important step in accessibility and inclusion being a part of all political manifestos.

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