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Indian General Elections 2019 - Audit by disability sector raises areas of concern

Accessibility was under the spotlight like never before in the recently held general elections in India. For the first time ever, an audit was conducted by members of the disability sector on the areas of concern and what should be looked at closely going ahead.

Accessible Elections was the much talked about buzzword in this general election and for the first time in India's history, the disability sector held a nationwide audit on how the accessible features actually panned out on the ground.

The campaign for accessible elections is not new. The National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) started the movement as far back as the nineties. In 1995, persons with disabilities were guaranteed equal opportunities with the passing of The Disability Act.

However, up until the general elections of 2004, all of this was on paper and millions of voters with disabilities struggled to exercise their right to vote on voting day. This time an audit was called for by Arman Ali, Executive Director, NCPEDP to look into the shortcomings that emerged on the accessibility aspect at polling booths across India.

What has emerged are issues on several fronts. One glaring problem, reported across the country, was the location of polling booths on higher floors. In Maharashtra, to name just one, there were 3,000 plus polling booths located on upper floors, with no provision for ramps made. Social media was flooded with images and videos of disabled voters being physically carried up the stairs. This included Arman Ali, who had to wait at the voting premises in Guwahati for two hours for polling officials to haul him upstairs to vote.

The audit specifies the following missing features in Lok Sabha Elections 2019:

  • Narrow entry gates and sharp slope in ramps: Ramps were not built as per the standardised 1:12 gradient. Also, many ramps were rickety, wooden, temporary, and at times too steep. This defeated the whole point of constructing ramps to make it easier for persons with physical disability. In certain booths in places like New Delhi and Jaipur, the problem was compounded by damaged roads and debris at the exits. In Gujarat, most booths were inaccessible with ramps not up to standards.
  • Poor lighting inside booths - Some booths in Jaipur and Odisha were so poorly lit that people with normal vision found it difficult to see things. One can imagine how much harder it was for people with low vision.
  • Unavailability of Braille ballot papers - Braille ballot paper was unavailable at many booths. while available at a few booths, was absent Only a handful had this provision.
  • Disabled-friendly toilets largely elusive - Most polling booths in India did not have accessible washrooms. The audit specifies booths in Amritsar East as problem areas.
  • Provision of drinking water patchy - Despite the high temperatures, at most polling booths, water dispensers were not at an adequate height for wheelchair users. The audit mentions polling booths in Goa as making good arrangements for people with disabilities.
  • Lack of trained personnel - In many booths, polling officers were rude and behaved inappropriately towards persons with disabilities, as they lacked training on what services to offer. There were not enough volunteers available in some booths.

This was a concern raised by disability rights groups in Goa as well following which the Chief Electoral Officer has started sensitisation and awareness trainings for poll officials in partnership with local NGOs.

"there was no sensitivity or awareness among the booth level officers (BLOs) as well as police manning the voting booths, said Sandhya Khalokhe , Goa Special Schools Association. Sandhya was not allowed to take her vehicle close to the booth even after she explained that her son, who is eligible to vote, has difficulty walking. "There was no wheelchair available outside either. It was inside the booth and there was no volunteer or official to tell us where the wheelchair was kept. Arrangements were made but there was no sensitisation.

The audit also highlights states where arrangements for disabled voters showed a major improvement. Among them were Goa and Sabarkantha, Gujarat. Here, arrangements were made for wheelchair-friendly vehicles to transport persons with disabilities to polling booths. Most booths in Gujarat were also equipped with Braille. This is a step forward, given that persons with disabilities featured on the Census only in 2001, five decades after independence.

Calling the audit an "honest attempt" by the Election Commission of India, Ali underlined the need to look at disability in a holistic manner.

This audit is just a beginning and it only shows us accessibility is not about ramps and wheelchairs. It is much more and the entire ecosystem needs to be involved. There was an honest attempt made by the Election Commission of India. They also hired a person with disability as consultant and engaged NGOs to make an impact. However, change will happen, only when disability is not looked at in isolation and is synergised as part of everything that involves the masses. - Arman Ali, Executive Director, NCPEDP

A positive side note is the move to hold such audits at state levels such as the one held recently in Goa where the Chief Electoral Officer responded to concerns raised by disability rights group iDare (initiative for Disability awareness rights and empowerment) and came together with a few NGOs to look into the issues that emerged in the recent elections. More such state-level initiatives will help cement the accessible election exercise.

ALSO READ:Accessible Elections in India & lessons for the future

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