Thursday, May 21, 2009

Making The Election Process Accessible to all - an out of box rethinking is necessary

Dear Friends,

Here is my article on making the election process in India accessible to all that I wrote today:

India has recently voted in an unprecedented election wherein Indian National Congress emerged as the strongest and the single largest party though with not a clear majority. The overall voting percentage that is being put forward is 50%. I am amazed that despite India being the IT giant, with resources in hand why do we still have to follow the means of the bye gone era where voters lined up for several hours to cast their vote!! I learnt that within my close circle so many couldn't vote. Few travelling, few had official trips & one couple was so old that they couldn't venture out of the house at all. I also learnt from my interaction that all those on poll duty are not able to vote – this includes sizable chunk of teachers and government employees and security forces put on election duty. Their right to vote is denied.

Access at Booths for voters with Disability
On the top of it, our friends in the Disability Sector too, without thinking out of box, campaigned & pressurized and advocated the Election Commission of India to make all the voter booths accessible to voters with disabilities based on a Supreme Court Verdict. That included providing EVMs with braille and ramps to access booths.

The feedback is mixed. At many places especially in rural India, no access was provided in terms of Ramps or braille enabled EVMs while at some places where it was provided, the blind voters did not know the braille!!!!

I am not negating the work, lobbying & successes that we as a sector achieved during this. But to bring home the larger question- Are we giving sufficient choices to our electorate - disabled or not?

Is that the only solution?
Will it suffice and make it accessible to all if we just focused on booths and EVMs in the name of equal rights for the voters with reduced mobility (I include elderly, disabled & those with fractured leg or back, sick and those not able to move out due to any pre-occupation or condition in the definition of reduced mobility) ?

The fact remains that 50% of India couldn't vote. I would say “could not” and not “did not” because the election system is still not friendly to people. I can not vote with comfort still, leave aside those experiencing disability, sickness, busy work schedules or simply have other personal priorities.

Some Solutions
I was just looking at how a multinational bank services its customers. There will always be few who prefer to visit bank and do the transactions – may be due to any reason like illiteracy, bank is closer, not very IT friendly etc. While there are others who use ATMs, Internet Banking for all their transactions, few pay their installments by EMIs and give instructions for payment of utility bills few who give bearers cheques!

To me, this throws ample of examples how voting system could have more choices to facilitate the voting system for the diversity of citizenry. While voting at accessible Booths should continue, more options like email, SMS, (on the lines of phone banking and internet banking), postal ballots should be given to citizens to choose from so that no one is denied his right to vote as a citizen.

For those few who are not able to step out of the houses due to old age or severe disabilities or sickness and yet not friendly with the modern means could be offered choices like the vehicle mounted EVMs (taking clue from mobile ATM Machines) and the same could even go to houses (on the lines of door to door Polio campaign). The voting process can be a week long for those opting email & SMSs and one day for those who physically vote on election booths. It is all the more possible when we have the citizen’s data base on Election Commission’s website, Photo ID cards have been issued and any body can check his data on the internet. Only thing we need to do is relate one email per person for those who are internet savvy. These are just few ideas thrown and I am sure many new could be though out.

Way Ahead
Also, firstly each Indian Citizen entitled to vote should be counted and identified - placing faces to the numbers - with proper identity proofs (biometrics, face recognition, eye recognition software could be used for data base. This would necessarily include identifying voters with disabilities to bring them in to the mainstream. Access to all including those experiencing disability should be an inbuilt feature in all such options.

If we have to become a strong democracy, India has to make enabling provisions that every one irrespective of the situations they are in - busy, out for work, out for wedding, sick at home, caring loved ones in the hospitals, posted at borders as a combatant in forces, experiencing reduced mobility or a disabling condition should be able to vote with equal comforts and with ample choices. I am hopeful that if implemented such ideas could generate 90% turn-out during poll process, for we are a vibrant democracy with maximum young people in the world!

Subhash Chandra Vashishth
Advocate-Disability Rights

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