Monday, November 24, 2014

What Are the Problems Preventing Educated Indians To Cast Their Votes?

If They Can Vote, Why Can't You? 
(जब ये तैयार हैं तो आप क्यों नहीं?)  

An Election Commission of India News Paper Advertisement!

Did you notice this advertisement of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in the newspapers recently? (See the scan above) It has the picture of a person in wheel chair and it poses a question in Hindi which translates as ' If they can vote, why can't you?'  

Obviously, the advertisement is aimed to instigate the educated people of India who are eligible to exercise their franchise to vote! Such an advertisement indirectly means that many people are not voting in India. The ECI must have thought to do something about it to improve the situation!

The state where I currently live would go for general elections 2014 shortly. It is scheduled to be held in 5 phases by the Election Commission during Nov-Dec 2014.

The election commission of India has made elaborate plans for this election management which they call it as the 'systematic voters' education and electoral participation' or 'sveep' by which Jharkhand is planned to be swept thoroughly as far as the coverage is concerned. The poll authority is planning to have the voting percentage enhanced this time from the poor shows of the past.

The newspaper advertisement above is part of the plan. Through the advertisement, the poll authority is challenging all the eligible able-bodied voters of the state who apparently shy away from exercising their franchises. 

I had written some aspects of this in the light of the recent initiatives by the election commission of India in one of my earlier blogs. I had written about the ECI's initiative to get voters registered online to get them enrolled in the voters' list. I had written about my personal experience (of failure!) by trying out that method!

Why do we have a very low voter turnout in India?

The first and foremost thing in my opinion lies with the methodology adopted by the Election Commission to create and update what is called the voters' list and the voter identity card.

Election commission of India makes no differentiation to the citizens with regard to their financial or social standing. The ECI treats all citizens equally. A vote exercised by the richest man and the poorest man has the same value! It is indeed a very good thing. There is no partiality at least in this matter in India!

But the political leaders and the ECI also do not want any aliens to vote and destabilize the country. So, in the recent years, they have introduced the concept of the photo identity card. Coupled with it is the voter list as prepared by the ECI which keeps updated every now and then by a process adopted by them.

The voter identity card concept is good. But it is some thing which is practically impossible for a country like India to implement. The voter ID card is conceived to have a photo of the voter together with his or her age and the address recorded on it as applicable at the time creating the card. There are three variables in this card which could change with time. They are the facial features, the age and the address of residence.

Thus a voter ID card which is suitable for one election may not be suitable for the next election which comes after a couple of years later.

The ECI does not have any localized offices or agencies which are easily approachable by the public where one can file an application for making changes in the voter ID card and get an updated card. They also do not have any permanent staff for doing this work.

Same is the case with the making of the voters list. Now, the voters having the ID card and also who are in the voters' list can only cast their votes in what is called a polling booth which is a improvised set up set up for the day of voting in some available building, usually in some dilapidated local government school or some thing of that sort. 

For the rural folks, who are permanently staying in the villages for quite some years, the voters' list and the polling booths are well known and well identified without much difficulty.

But that is not the case with those in the cities. The polling booths and the voters' list in the cities are mutually invisible for all practical purposes.

The Election commission draws its enumerators from lower level government staff. In the cities, their numbers are abysmally low. Besides, they are pretty indifferent to the important work they are assigned with. They know well that the voter information data generated by them, for all practical purposes, cannot be properly verified and they cannot be held accountable for errors that they create knowingly or unknowingly. With such a system, there is nothing surprising if the voters' list of the cities are created with error galore!

In India, urbanization is taking place at a very fast pace. The cities and the towns are where the job opportunities exist. People are constantly on the move to the cities.  Besides, a good majority of the urban dwellers in India live in rented accommodations and hence keep changing their places of residence quite often.

It is practically impossible for the ECI to make any reliable voters' list for the urban population of India under such a scenario with the present system of voter id or voters' list making and updating!

The authorities now say that the photo ID cards of the ECI is no more a mandatory document for voting. Citizens are allowed to use other photo id cards instead. But no one can vote unless he or she knows where to vote  and where his or her name appears in the voters' list.

The method of making the voters' list, especially for the urban areas is highly unscientific. The cities keep changing their faces due to rapid urbanization. But the ECI with their temporary workforce from the state government employee pool, has no facilities for updating the information in accordance with the fast changes. As a result, their data base and the actual ground reality do not match.

The net result is either elimination of a good number of urban people from the voters' lists or duplication of names in many lists without the actual voter ever getting aware of it.

Naturally, the actual numbers of people who go for voting gets greatly reduced. Moreover, no citizen with some respectable standing in society would like to get identified as a fake voter and face legal actions by trying their luck at the polling booths. When the the voters as per the voter list do not turn out for voting in large numbers due to the reasons I have mentioned, an opportunity gets created for some at least to manipulate the votes with the connivance of some pliable polling officials!

Unless the ECI think and evolve better solutions, the situation would remain as such. While people who never move out of their places would cast their votes, the literate and educated lots who have to shift their residences quite often would not cast their votes any time!(Exceptions would be the high ranking political functionaries and high ranking bureaucrats who are required to exhibit their responsibility in public under full media glare!) 

If you are a person who lives in the Indian cities and shift your residence every couple of years you are perhaps one who is not likely to cast your vote in India.

But if you have managed to get your name in the voters' list and managed to vote even with these constraints, you should share your method of doing that. It would be a great help to others like you.

Will you be voting this time?

If you do not vote, what would be your excuse?

Would you like to share your experiences in this context?

Do you have some suggestions to the ECI?

If your state or the nation enact a law that makes non voting a punishable offence, just as the Gujarat State has recently done, what would be your reaction? Is it justifiable for any government to punish its citizens for failure to play their part when the government fails to play its its part well?

I have a suggestion to the ECI and the government(s) of India. If they do not have the departmental infrastructural ability to manage things well, why don't they think of outsourcing these services to private players who meet certain well defined eligibility criteria? After all, India has moved away from its old policies of state owned enterprises to embrace and accept private participation and enterprise. When it can happen in all other areas, why not in the area of election management?

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