BHUBANESWAR: The Election Commission of India (ECI) has proclaimed a mission to make the 2019 General Elections the most disabled-friendly polls in the country. With a view to create synergy among the Governments and administrative setups to ensure wider participation of persons with disabilities (PwD) by generating awareness and enhancing accessibility at polling stations, it had even declared “Accessible Elections” as the theme of National Voters Day last year.
However, as the elections approach, Odisha appears to have a long distance to cover in order to comply with the accessibility guidelines. While wheelchairs, ramps and other facilities at polling booths along with voter support at the booths and transport facility for PwD voters are the pre-requisite, there is no proper system to evaluate their implementation. A central monitoring cell to keep tab on the progress and implementation of accessibility guidelines across the state missing even as the first phase elections are weeks away.
According to the office of the chief electoral officer (CEO) Odisha, around 4.7 lakh PwD voters have been enrolled in the State. But the number is far less than the actual PwD population. The enrolment of PwD voters has been done according to the 2011 Census that puts the number of PwDs in Odisha at 12.4 lakh of which, 67 per cent are eligible voters. A substantial chunk of the voter population has been omitted due to lack of disability certificates with them.
Further, there is little information on the public domain on people with 21 different types of disabilities who have been recognised under the Right of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. “Earlier, only seven kinds of disabilities were recognised but 14 more were added when the Right of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 was framed. The 2011 Census covers only people with seven disabilities and hence, large number of eligible PwD voters will miss out,” says disability rights activist Sruti Mohapatra.
According to reports, lack of barrier -free measures had resulted in minimal participation of PwDs in past elections. A whopping 90 per cent of eligible PwD voters is stated to have skipped the General Elections in 2009 and 2014. In fact, in the last General Elections, braille ballot papers were provided only in some booths and that too restricted to Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Berhampur.
This year, though, provisioning of braille-enabled EVMs and braille ballot sheets in all booths are mandatory. “However, the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines that are being used for the first time in the State are not disabled-friendly, particularly for the visually challenged,” Khurda district social security officer Sanyasi Behera pointed out.
Chief Electoral Officer Surendra Kumar said State Government will provide 25,000 wheelchairs at booths and each booth will have at least two volunteers (NSS, NCC, Scouts and Guides) to help the PwDs. “Returning officers in each district will provide passes to PwD voters which will serve two purposes – priority voting and transportation facility. They will not have to stand in a queue and wherever required, vehicles will be provided to bring them to the booths and drop them back home,” he said.
However, though majority of Government school buildings which are mostly used as polling booths, have ramps, most are not to the prescribed standards. There are also a good chunk of schools and other facilities to be used as booths which do not have ramps or barrier-free infrastructure.
Besides, the volunteers to be engaged for helping PwDs have not been trained in handling such voters. PwD voter awareness and sensitisation efforts are also lacking. There is also no election information booklet or information, education and communication (IEC) materials for blind, speech and hearing impaired people.
Mohapatra suggested constitution of district-level steering committees to sensitise PwD voters and ensure every eligible person exercises his or her franchise.
“A transport nodal officer can also be appointed for each district who can tag PwD voters with their polling booths and ensure pick-up and drop facilities accordingly,” Behera added.