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Disabled on an equal footing this election

By Shampa Sengupta

If Supreme Court guidelines are obeyed, the forthcoming Lok Sabha election will be a historic one. For the first time the poll process will be disabled-friendly, with ramps, separate queues and Braille-enabled voting machines that will allow disabled voters to enjoy the same rights as everyone else

“I struck off my name from the voters’ list after I started using a wheelchair following an accident,” says Sumanta Sarkar (name changed on request), a resident of South Kolkata and a senior central government employee. “I knew I would not be able to access the polling booth, and I cannot face the indignity of being carried inside the booth by others.”

Sarkar was reminded that the 2009 Lok Sabha election is considered a historic one by the disability sector for being the first disabled-friendly election since independence. But, given the country’s past record in providing disabled-friendly facilities, he is hesitant to believe that an absolutely disabled-friendly election is possible in this country. He is sorry about not casting his vote, but wants to wait and see what happens this year. After all, he has not seen any attempts on the part of the Election Commission to publicise how polling booths will become more accessible to the disabled, such as by locating the booths on the ground floor, or having ramps and separate queues for the disabled.

Ananta Das, who has visual disabilities, is less sceptical. In fact, he is quite excited about being able to vote via the Braille-enabled electronic voting machine (EVM). In the past, he has had to take the help of his wife. The EVM is an empowering experience and makes him feel part of the political process, he says. However, he learnt about the Braille-enabled EVM from a disability group, and not from any government agency like All India Radio of which he is an avid listener.

So far, disabled citizens have had to depend on others to cast their vote; persons with visual disabilities could not even keep their choice a secret as they had to take the help of others in casting their vote. Physically disabled people have to be carried into the booth. Nandini Roy, a lecturer in Midnapore district, West Bengal, said that in the last elections, although staff in the polling booth were helpful and courteous, there were no women among them and she felt uncomfortable being carried in by men and having people stare at her.

The change expected in the 2009 elections is the result of a Supreme Court order and guidelines. The Supreme Court order of 2007 is the result of a letter written to the Chief Justice of India by Javed Abidi, convener of the Disabled Rights Group (DRG) before the 2004 election, demanding that necessary steps be taken to make the polling process accessible to the disabled. The letter was converted into a public interest litigation (PIL). Apart from ramps in polling booths and Braille-enabled EVMs, the Supreme Court judgment also says that poll personnel must be sensitised to the special needs of the disabled and be courteous to them.

Abidi is jubilant about the outcome. “The very idea that we will be able to exercise our franchise with dignity and secrecy, which is the right of every citizen in a democracy, fills us with fervour!” he said.

Apart from making the booths disabled-friendly, the Supreme Court ordered the Election Commission (EC) to give sufficient publicity in the print and electronic media to the availability of such facilities so that persons with disabilities are aware of them beforehand and are encouraged to exercise their franchise. Further, EC observers must satisfy themselves that such facilities are given. The absence of such facilities should be notified to the respective state governments for action.

The EC has not fulfilled this part of the order; most people who know about the changes were informed by NGOs/disability groups. There has been no advertising in the media even though the elections are just days away.

Notwithstanding the scepticism of some and the lack of awareness on the part of many, this election is a landmark in the disability movement. As Javed Abidi says, “It has been a long journey in this fight to find an equal footing under this large democracy and the right to be treated as equal citizens.”

(Shampa Sengupta is an activist working in the field of disability and gender)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009