Aishwarya Rao has been entering the same booth since 1991 using her calipers or wheelchair without missing an election but her voting experience on April 18 in Tamil Nadu has been her worst so far. Rao had to be carried along with her wheelchair, first into the school building in Anna Nagar and then inside the booth and the ordeal was not over. “I couldn’t see the electronic voting machine (EVM) because it was kept on top of two tables,” says Rao who sought her brother’s help to push the button on her behalf. “I want to vote with dignity like everyone else at least once in my life,” says Rao who is also a member of the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA).
In 2016, at the same booth Rao could independently use a make-shift wooden ramp with hand rails while this time it was replaced by a steep cement ramp that threatened a fall for the user.
After unanimously appreciating the Election Commission for conducting the 2016 Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu with basic facilities for voters with disabilities, several of them like Rao are disenchanted that the arrangements were poorer compared to previous years. They struggled with several issues ranging from lack of accessible infrastructure, compromising on privacy of their ballot to facing insensitive polling personnel.
Compromising on secret ballot
Rajiv Rajan, who has cerebral palsy had brought a friend along to assist him but a polling official reportedly did not allow the friend entry and commented that Rajan may break the EVM and cause trouble at his Kotturpuram polling booth. Rajan says apart having to endure rude comments his right to a secret ballot was denied as the official helped him vote.
Another person with cerebral palsy, Bhavna Botta expected to be carried with her wheelchair as it has been the case for her in previous elections. Two out of eight booths have ramps at her polling station in a school in Little Mount. The barricades in-between booths prevent her from using the ramp and going into her booth on her own. But what caused her anguish was after volunteers settled her inside the booth she had no space to maneuver her wheelchair as the EVM was placed in close proximity to the wall. “She got really upset and wanted to leave immediately,” says Botta’s mother Kalpana. “How can they be so insensitive that the process is designed for only those who can walk?” They couldn’t convince polling officers to move the EVM so Botta had to disclose her voting preference for her mother to vote for her.
Disability rights groups attribute the deteriorating experience compared to previous elections to a weak engagement between them and election authorities. Another problem they say is the lack of coordination among officials of different bodies- the State Election Commission, district differently abled welfare officers, the department for persons with disabilities and zonal level engineers. “Accessibility as an issue was taken serious only two weeks ago after a visit from a team from the Election Commission of India (ECI),” said P Simmachandran, president, Federation of TN Differently Abled Association who was the state representative for the national consultation conducted by ECI in Delhi last July.
Lack of engagement
For the 2016 Assembly Election, the disability community began working with the state election office as early as 2015 October. A member of the DRA says that they had carried out an access audit of more than a 1,000 polling stations out of more than 3,000 polling stations in Chennai while this time they were able to cover only 150 locations. “We were not allowed to carry out an audit until three days ago,” says the DRA member adding that there has been no time to rectify the complaints. “The Chief Election Officer had given clear instructions for accessibility and deployed officials but the implementation was either diluted or there was no cross-verification.”
Rao says that in 2014 and 2016 there was enormous outreach from the Election Commission with public awareness, preparation and information dissemination. “I don’t know how to quantify it but there was a lot of buzz around disability at that time while the engagement has been dismal now.” With that sort of a momentum built up combined with the ECI’s commitment and ‘accessible elections’ being their central theme for 2018, activists say there were higher expectations.
The fight for an inclusive electoral process was started by Javed Abidi, says Meenakshi, Coordinator Projects, Equals, Centre for Promotion of Social Justice. Abidi, the late national disability rights activist had written to the Chief Justice of India in 2004 to make polling booths accessible following which the Supreme Court passed directions. “Inclusion is being pushed by disability alliances and the ECI takes it on board. We need to have a systemic approach and that cannot happen unless the Election Commission thinks about the person for whom the voting process is most difficult and works toward that,” she says.
Calling for the need to debate on implementing universal standards of design and infrastructure procurement policies, Meenakshi says that accessibility is not merely putting up a ramp on the eve of the election like hanging up a painting. “Accessibility has to be ensured across the board from procurement guidelines to monitoring to training people to understand the logic behind inclusive designs and audit.”
The Chennai District Election Office had identified 6,863 people with disabilities enrolled for voting. Responding to complaints that all polling booths did not have wheelchairs and volunteers, Chennai election officials said that polling stations in expanded areas of the city are not in their purview and came under the erstwhile panchayats. “We have instructed zonal officers to ensure basic requirements such as one wheelchair per polling station, braille sheets, signage and roped in student volunteers for assistance,” additional district election officer, R Lalitha said.
Amidst the struggle and frustration, few voters with disabilities enjoyed a smooth process. 71-year-old Dwarak Ethiraj who has a progressive supranuclear palsy condition voted for the first time after his retirement gave him time to enroll online. With the help of his neighbor Ammu Nair, another senior citizen, Ethiraj arrived in his motorized wheelchair at a polling station in Thiruvanmiyur which had ramps built in a standardized design and sensitive polling agents to help them. His first vote despite being a septuagenarian is for a strong leader who will not discriminate against age or disability, Ethiraj said in a slurred speech.