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Accessible Voting mission under a cloud with key government body backtracking on promise to provide wheelchairs

From Braille enabled voter cards, sign language training for poll officials to a dedicated portal to ensure greater participation, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has focused considerable time, effort and thinking into ensuring its mission - "Leave No Voter Behind" - is a reality in the coming national election.

So it is disappointing when a critical aspect of this exercise, which is providing wheelchairs at polling booths for elderly and disabled voters, is ignored, that too by a government body mandated to work towards empowering people with disabilities.

This is the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), which has the responsibility of ensuring that polling stations across India are equipped with the required number of wheelchairs.

A role that the DEPwD has shown reluctance to pursue wholeheartedly.

This puts a cloud over the Accessible Election exercise, a concern that Chennai-based disability rights activist Smitha Sadasivan has raised with the EC. In a letter, Sadasivan has referred to a meeting, where a DEPwD official said that it cannot take the responsibility of procuring wheelchairs for the elections and that this has to be taken up directly with ALIMCO, a rehab aids manufacturing PSU, which comes under the MSJE.

With the election barely weeks away, she has asked the EC for help in the matter.

The MSJE as well as State Disability departments are anyway facilitating or procuring wheelchairs for distribution to persons with disabilities at different levels until the districts and block/village levels. Either the same distribution may be done along with elections for 2019 after using the wheelchairs for elections in all districts. Or the state disability departments may identify existing sources of wheelchairs, do a quality check and procure them for the purpose of elections and surrender them back to the source as done in previous state legislative assembly elections. - Smitha Sadasivan, Member, Disability Rights Alliance, India

Promises unmet

This attitude, coming at the last minute, is a huge let-down. What makes it especially shocking and bizarre is that the move to offer wheelchairs to ensure an inclusive election was made by ALIMCO in the first place, as disability rights activist, Dr Satendra Singh points out.

"Before the 2014, general elections, the Delhi CEO called a high level meeting where Awanish K. Awasth, Joint Secretary, DEPwD, among the board of directors of ALIMCO, offered the wheelchair facility. The Delhi Inclusive model was widely appreciated and ECI replicated that in other states. Since then all the states have been procuring wheelchairs from the disability department", says Dr SIngh.

However, in 2015, ahead of the Delhi elections, ALIMCO backtracked and provided only 400 wheelchairs. It was only after the Delhi State Commissioner (Disabilities) intervened, that 300 more wheelchairs were provided. Even this was not enough.

Now, in a recent meeting held on 15 February 2019 to discuss the issue of providing wheelchairs and other facilities at polling stations in Delhi for the upcoming elections, ALIMCO initially backtracked on its commitment to provide wheelchairs and it was only after much debate that it agreed to supply 3,000 wheelchairs.

"Procuring wheelchairs is not the job of the ECI", says Dr Singh. "Rather this arrangement is the duty of the DEPwD, and the departments under it, which includes ALIMCO. It is very unfair that after having made this commitment to the disabled community, they are going back on their word".

But for the rest of the country, the situation is uncertain, a violation of the EC's stand as well as the RPWD Act which states that all polling stations must be accessible to persons with disabilities and all materials related to the electoral process are easily understandable by and accessible to them.

Given the importance of elections in a democratic country like India, this display of apathy from government authorities is shocking, especially from departments that are entrusted with the welfare of people with disabilities.

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