The recently concluded Telangana election was supposed to the most disabled friendly elections to have ever taken place in India. The Election Commission of India (ECI) had even declared ‘Accessible Elections’ as their central theme for this year’s National Voters Day celebrations. However, on December 7 as the state went to polls these good intentions of the ECI did not materialise fully on the ground.
To begin with, there were no wheelchair ramps at many of the 32,815 polling stations across the state. Where ramps had been built, they were too steep and uneven to climb, and most had no railings either. “Accessible environment means it has to be accessible from the gate to the polling compartment. In some places, the tables inside the polling booths were high and Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) again required assistance,” said a national civil society group working on accessible Elections
It was observed by the civil society group that the issue with ramps was reported not just in Telangana but also in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh that also went to the polls recently.
“The ECI has given instructions to set up ramps and other facilities based on the ‘Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for barrier-free environment’ by the Ministry of Urban Development, but they are yet to derive the standards from these guidelines specific to polling booths. That job is under process and is expected to be done before the Lok Sabha polls,” said the representative of the national civil society group working on accessible Elections
On ramps, the government guidelines read: “The gradient of a kerb ramp should not be steeper than 1:12; the flared sides should not be more than 1:10”.
“All engineers at the ground level must be familiar with these guidelines, but in many cases they are not… even if the engineers are aware of the guidelines, it is not executed in the booths,” the society added.
In Telangana, the total number of PWDs availing Aasara pensions is 9.12 lakh, according to the state socio-economic outlook 2017. But no department in the state has undertaken a survey to identify the 21 different types of disabilities that were recognised under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.
According to Srinivasulu, the president of the Network of Persons with Disability Organisations (NPDO), there are anywhere between 4 lakh to 6 lakh PWDs eligible to vote in Telangana based on seven types of disabilities. But he is of the view that the number of PWD voters could be much higher as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act recognises 21 different types of disabilities. “The state EC itself is not sure about how many PWD voters are there, one official told me 4 lakh, another said 6 lakh,” said Srinivasulu.
Representatives of NPDO, an umbrella organisation for those working for disability rights, had several interactions with the Telangana Election Commission prior to polls over accessibility. They had also urged the state EC to increase enrolment of PWD voters to the electoral rolls and provide them with transport on election day.
Srinivasulu blames the state EC for a lack of “commitment” towards making elections accessible. “They delegated the execution to the Disabilities Welfare department that is more or less defunct, we already didn’t have any faith in that department’s abilities,” he added.
Transport woes for PWDs
Requesting transport facility for all PWDs, NPDO had asked the state EC to appoint a transport nodal officer for each district and tag PWDs polling station wise to enable pick-up and drop.
An android app “VAADA”, a voter accessibility app for persons with disabilities, was developed and released by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) in association with the state EC. The app has a text, voice and GIS interface to locate a user. The idea was to geo-locate voters who are PWD and provide them with transport and attender for pick-up and drop to cast their vote.
“I used the app myself on election day and requested for a pick-up to reach my polling booth, but no one responded,” said Srinivasulu.
However, the west zone zonal commissioner with GHMC, Hari Chandana, who was overseeing the app told TNM that the applications service was limited to Hyderabad district. “We received about 8,000 requests for transport and we were able to cater to all these requests. People from other districts can download the app but they will not be able to make a request for pick-up,” the official clarified.
Road ahead for EC
The way to avoid a repeat of the shortcomings felt during the Telangana polls would be by starting a sensitisation programme for all zonal staff who take part in the poll process. The fault does not lie with any individual state election commission, but with the way the whole accessible elections have been approached by the ECI.
“At all the accessible election programmes held by Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) for their District Electoral Officers (DEOs) and master trainers, they just talk about helping PWDs and getting wheelchairs. These training sessions do not touch upon practical instructions on how to push a wheelchair up or down a ramp, for example.”
Even the training imparted to volunteers tasked with assisting PWDs on election day were inadequate. These issues could be ironed out if the ECI signs MoUs with civil society groups and gives them responsibilities. “An access survey audit needs to be done by the Public Works Departments of the states and shared with civil society groups,” the national civil society group working on accessible Elections added.