"Treat us as equals" - Disabled staff manning voting booth in Delhi send out a loud, clear message
Monika Dhankhar sounds exhausted and happy at the end of a grueling day spent officiating at the polling station in Ambedkar Nagar, South Delhi. This was the only booth in the national capital manned by people with disabilities.
Dhankhar, 30, a nurse at a government-run hospital was happy to forego a Sunday with husband and family to sign up for poll duty, her first such experience.
"It gave me a sense of equal opportunity, says Dhankhar, who has a spinal deformity. "This sends out the message that there is nothing that a person with a disability cannot do.
The other polling officers with Dhankhar were Mohit Arora, a bank officer, and Ameer Ulla Siddiqui, who works at Jamia Millia Islamia. The presiding officer was disability rights leader Dr Satendra Singh.
The team was put through two days training by Dr Mayank Pandey, who has been working with the Election Commission of India (ECI) for 30 years. This was his first time training disabled people.
They worked from 4 AM and finished after midnight. We offered them assistance at various points, but they refused. I am truly impressed and inspired by their energy and ability and so were the voters. The booth they were in had the highest turnout and it was quite exhausting. But they kept doing their job, uncomplainingly. - Dr Mayank Pandey, Master Trainer, Election Commission of India
Siddiqui, 38, who has an orthopaedic disability, sees this as an opportunity to change attitudes. "People see us as bechaara, unable to work, etc. This is a tough job and people who are physically fit try and find reasons to skip poll duty. We wanted to show that we are equal to others and don't need sympathy. Hopefully, this would also inspire the disabled community to work hard and move ahead.
Arora says he learned a lot while on poll duty and looks forward to repeating the experience.
"I always thought voting was just about pressing a button. There is so much that happens behind the scenes and such hard work by poll officials, said Arora. The scale of the exercise impressed Dr Singh as well. "Imagine this is happening on a massive scale across India and at every step, transparency has to be ensured.
Dr Singh, who was on the State Steering Committee on Accessible Election has ideas on how to make the exercise better, which he plans to share with the ECI.
"It's a good thing we are using EVM/VVPATs, but there is a lot of paperwork post that which can be replaced with technology. This, he says, will save time and energy. "It was like the Kumbh Mela at the center where the EVMs have to be submitted with a lot of checking and re-checking, which takes a physical toll on all, regardless of disability.
Like Dhankhar, he believes the polling station manned by disabled staff will increase visibility and dialogue. "Even polling officials were surprised to see people using crutches volunteering for an activity that is considered to be hard. We were given the option of reserve before the poll, but we categorically refused as we didn't want it to be an eyewash for media presence alone. Treat as us equals.