April 11 was voting day in Noida. It was Phase 1 of the festival of democracy, the biggest elections in the world. I was excited, curious and a little apprehensive. The Election Commission of India (ECI) had promised an inclusive election. The theme for this massive operation was “leave no one behind”. Advertisements on radio, television and social media were repeatedly talking about accessible polling booths, Braille markings on Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), list of candidates in Braille, pick-and-drop facilities, trained personnel etc. I believe that this is the first time that the ECI had looked at persons with disabilities as serious stakeholders in the General Elections. I was delighted to be included, though had serious fears about the reality on the ground. There is often a huge gap between the cup and the lip when it comes to intent and execution.
My wife and I reached the polling station before 7am with a view to beat the long queues. Well, we found that we were not the only people with this idea. Long lines had formed already, waiting for the polling to start. To make things easy, there were separate queues for men and women. This made me a little nervous since my wife, besides voting herself, was also doubling up to escort and assist me. We approached an official standing close by and told him of my blindness and the need for assistance. He immediately asked us to go right in front and meet the polling officer who promptly provided me with a list in Braille. When I said I did not know Braille, he asked my wife to fill up form 49A and then we were directed to proceed towards the booth. My wife cast her vote first and then she accompanied me in and read out the party symbols alongside the buttons on the EVMs. I counted the buttons from the top and pressed the button of my choice. The beep went off and I had exercised my franchise.
In the following weeks, my colleagues and I spoke to several blind and visually impaired people from across the country regarding their voting experience. Many were appreciative of the ECI’s efforts in making these elections accessible. Some cribbed of insensitive officials. There were a few booths where the Braille list of candidates was missing. But overall these elections have been a tremendous improvement as far as inclusion of persons with disabilities was concerned.
It is critical for us to view the ECI’s efforts in the context of the sheer magnitude of the country: 543 constituencies, 1.035 million polling booths, 3.96 million EVMs, 8,000 candidates, 2293 political parties, 900 million registered voters, 11 million polling officials. Given these numbers, the ECI’s effort is commendable. While there is room for improvement, it has taken a definite step forward signaling their recognition of the citizenship of persons with disabilities and ensuring their inclusion.
Three cheers to that!
George Abraham is a disability activist, an inspirational speaker and the CEO of Score Foundation.
Score Foundation is part of the Eyeway network, a knowledge resource on living life with blindness. The Eyeway Helpdesk can be reached on toll free No.18005320469 on Monday –Friday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
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