The 2019 Lok Sabha Elections are happening throughout India in several phases. At the present moment, the entire nation is embroiled in debates about who will be elected into the next Indian government, as well as reflections on the achievements of the current administration. Part and parcel to the upcoming elections is an important element that has been widely neglected: the question of accessibility. There is a broad lack of awareness about the issue of accessible elections, exasperated by a tendency for discourse to focus on more “appealing” election issues such as development, poverty, corruption and nationalism.
‘Accessible Elections’ was finalised as the central theme for all the upcoming elections by the Election Commission of India (ECI) during the National Consultation on Accessible Elections held in the first week of July, 2018. The aim is to increase the participation of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) in elections by making them more inclusive and accessible to increasing numbers of people from different communities. The ECI debated on means to counter various barriers to accessibility for PwDs in elections and decided to make sincere efforts to increase accessibility and ensure that the challenges faced by PwDs are addressed in an effective manner. To implement this commitment, the ECI launched the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) initiative, which is a model program launched by the ECI for educating the Indian voter base, creating awareness and promoting literacy among voters. Accessibility to elections for PwDs is a part of this initiative. Additional guidelines haven been issued by the Commission providing for certain Assured Minimum Facilities (AMF) for PwDs at the polling booths.
In keeping with the central theme of accessible elections, elections in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana were to be held to the standards as set out by the ECI.
I conducted a basic survey of some polling booths in the city of Jaipur during the voting for Rajasthan State Assembly Elections, 2018 (the elections) in order to analyse the extent of implementation of the AMF guidelines and examine any potential loopholes which existed between planning and actual implementation.
Regarding the national law, Article 14 of the Constitution of India provides for equality before law and Article 21 provides for the fundamental right to life and liberty. With specific regard to elections, Article 324 provides for the establishment, powers, and functions of the Election Commission and its objective of conducting elections in a free and fair manner. Furthermore, Article 325 provides that no person shall be ineligible to vote on the grounds of religion, race, caste or sex. This corresponds to Article 15(1) of the Constitution which provides for non-discrimination by the State against any citizen on the abovementioned grounds. Additionally, Article 326 provides for the principal of universal adult suffrage as the basis for holding national as well as state elections. In light of these provisions, Rule 49N of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 and the ECI guidelines have been laid down to address the issue of providing assistance to PwDs.
Relevant legislation to the question of election accessibility also exists at the international level. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was ratified by India in 2007. Article 29 of the Convention lays down that all States-Parties shall guarantee political rights to PwDs and provide the opportunities to enjoy them, including the right to vote through procedures that are accessible and easy to understand. In 2016, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPwD) was passed and hailed by disability rights activists as ushering in a new era for PwDs. Section 11 of the Act provides that “The Election Commission of India and the State Election Commissions shall ensure that all polling stations are accessible to persons with disabilities and all materials related to the electoral process are easily understandable by and accessible to them.” This provision has been laid down keeping in view the rights provided by the Constitution of India and the Article 29 of the CRPD. Both of these provisions elucidate the fact that elections have to be made accessible to PwDs in order for them to enjoy their legal and democratic rights of choosing their governments as citizens of India.
According to the website of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan), there are more than 1.5 million PwDs in Rajasthan and 436,125 of them were enrolled as voters for the elections.
Given this large number of voters, the issue of accessibility becomes highly relevant for the continued protection of the human rights of PwD. Curious to see if the AMF guidelines were truly being implemented, I conducted a random sampling survey at polling booths in the capital city of Jaipur during the elections. The criteria I studied were:
- Physical accessibility to the polling booths- Ramps, Wheelchairs and Attendants.
- Availability of Braille Scripts with the indication of the parties/candidates.
- Awareness and sensitization of the Block Level Officers (BLOs) about the ECI guidelines and laws related to rights of PWDs and their readiness towards addressing the issues faced by PwDs during the voting process.
- Availability of separate toilets for PwDs.
- Separate entry and exit for PwDs.
Observations and Conclusion
Most of the schools in Jaipur, both private and government, were designated as polling booths. I visited a few of these schools to conduct my survey. I observed that, in all of the polling booths which I attended, none were at all accessible to the PwD voters.
First, there was no separate entry and exit for the PwD voters. Second, ramps were either missing in some of the places or they were temporarily set-up and seemed quite rickety and dangerous to be used. Third, there was a either a shortage or an absence of wheelchairs in most of the polling booths. Fourth, braille scripts were mostly not available for aiding the visually impaired voters and even if they were, they weren’t being used by the election authorities. Fifth, there were no separate toilets for the PwDs in any of the polling booths. Sixth, attendants were only deputed at one of the polling booths, which was a government school. And last, there was a severe lack of sensitization about the theme of elections and the SVEEP initiative and an unwillingness to help on the part of the Block Level Officers (BLO) and other election authorities. At one of the polling booths, the BLO got agitated upon being questioned about the shortage of wheelchairs and tried to put the blame on the higher level authorities. I was able to speak with some of the PwD voters who were facing issues while accessing the polling booths, but most of them were a bit hesitant to share their specific challenges with me.
The above mentioned observations depict the reality of the polling booths during elections. It illustrates a stark difference between the reformative objectives envisaged by the Election Commission of India and the actual practices that took place during the day of voting.
The lack of physical accessibility due to the absence of ramps and wheelchairs meant that PwD voters had a hard time entering as well as exiting the polling booths. The absence of braille scripts meant that those who had visual disabilities had to take another person’s help in casting their vote, which took away their sense of autonomy and privacy in voting. Furthermore, the lack of separate toilets meant that PwDs weren’t be able to relieve themselves as they stood waiting to cast their votes.
Additionally, the lack of separate entry and exit for PwDs created additional impediments for them in accessing the polling booths. Above all, the lack of awareness on the part of the Block Level Officers and other election authorities further aggravated this situation as they were not able to understand the challenges faced by PwD voters and hence were not willing to provide any assistance to them.
In practice, it is clear that the theme of accessible elections was in vain at the Rajasthan State Assembly Elections, 2018. The lack of accessibility which I observed at the elections highlights a clear violation of the rights provided to PwDs by the Constitution of India. The ECI’s AMF guidelines were flouted during the organisation of the elections, as they were not carried out equally or adequately in the individual polling places. As a result, only 100,200 out of the total enrolled PwD voters in Rajasthan were able to cast their votes during the 2018 state elections.
This brings to light questions about the role of political will, planning, and implementation in the enforcement of human rights treaties such as the CRPD and in domestic legislation like the RPwD Act. The Indian government has taken many legislative steps to express its commitment to making rights for PwD a reality, but there remain larger policy challenges to be tackled through proper implementation of the law. This could include a stricter follow-up strategy by authorities at polling places. Concrete and reliable policy implementation is vital in order to have the largest and most positive impact on PwD and their rights to vote. Without it, the rights of PwD will remain confined to the realm of debates and discussions, leaving voters without a means to participate in their democratic society.
By: Mohneesh Rai, guest contributor, 4th year studying at the NALSAR University of Law in India-Mohneesh Rai (4th Year, NALSAR University of Law)