BOOK EXTRACT

How the Election Commission got more women to vote

In his new book, 'An Undocumented Wonder: The Great Indian Election', former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi details how the organisation has increased voter turnout by reaching out to the last voters: nomadic communities, the differently abled, the homeless and the transgendered. Here, he details how the Election Commission ensured that more women turn out to vote.

India suffers from one of the lowest sex ratios among the South Asian countries. Provisional figures in the 2011 Census of India put the sex ratio of the country at 940, the highest since 1971. But among the ten most populous countries of the world, only China is behind us with a sex ratio of 926. Similarly, the female literacy rate was 65.14 per cent in 2011 as compared to a male literacy rate of 82.14 per cent. With this background and awareness about the socio-economic-political milieu, several steps were taken by the Commission to ensure that eligible women are not left out from attaining their right to register and exercising their right to vote.

There is a very comprehensive system of statistical analysis in place in the Commission to ensure that no citizen of eighteen years age is left out of the electoral rolls. It calculates the gender ratio, the elector–population ratio and the age cohort of voters as against the population figures given by Census, which are projected on an yearly basis with the help of the decadal growth rate. This kind of broad strategy then forms the basis for developing a polling station-wise strategy for positive intervention by the electoral registration officer of each assembly constituency to ensure that not one eligible voter is left out. An analysis of the gender ratio is one of the main focus areas in this strategy, which has been scrupulously followed since 2006.

It was felt in the middle of the last decade that due to the social structure of Indian society, which is still somewhat restrictive for women, some radical efforts needed to be made. Consequently, the system of appointing Booth Level Officers (BLOs) was devised and recently, the Commission has initiated the system of annual house to house verification of voters with the help of the BLOs. A BLO is a government or semi-government functionary (like a school teacher or patwari (revenue official)) who is designated to work within the geographical limits of a single polling station area for the purpose of voter registration, roll verification and awareness building about electoral processes. This is an additional responsibility and in lieu of these functions, they receive a small honorarium. Out of the 824,000 BLOs in the country, a substantial number are women and that has been a major contributory factor in an enhanced registration of women voters...

A concern that is taken into account while publishing photographs on the electoral rolls is the socio-cultural gender related sensitivities in the country. It is mandatory to give hard copies of these rolls to recognized political parties during every revision at the draft level, as well as of the final publication. These rolls are also shared with various government departments, academics and researchers and civil society groups, if they so require. However, it is the policy of the Commission to share the soft copy of the rolls without photographs of the voters keeping in view cultural sensitivity about women. It was felt that a soft copy of women’s photos could be subjected to abuse like morphing. The printed copy with a small postage stamp size photo was considered good enough for identification. With regard to non-inclusion of women in electoral rolls on account of shifting of residence due to marriage, a number of FAQs were designed to address the issue of electoral rolls of newly married women in their spousal families.

Female Participation in the Voting Process

Several steps have been taken to encourage and facilitate women’s participation on polling day. For one, there are separate queues for men and women. To make it faster for women, in the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2012, it was decided to allow two women in the queue to proceed for every one man. This worked wonders as their queues moved very fast and the women were able to return quickly, which motivated others to go and vote. This has been made a nationwide practice. There is invariably one female polling staff member to take care of the sensibilities of female voters who, for example, may not like to have a male polling staff member applying indelible ink on their fingers or they may prefer to be identified by a female staff member. All-women polling stations are set up with only women staff members in areas with purdahnasheen (veiled) voters. Women police forces are also deployed with a view to encouraging female voter turnouts.

 Pre-election Survey

Since 2010, when a voter education division was set up, a system of a Knowledge, Attitude, Behaviour and Practices (KABP) survey has been taken up as a mandatory pre-election activity that has revealed several reasons why female turnout is lower than that of males. In fact, KABP has emerged as an important election management tool to assess voter perceptions about physical and psychological barriers amongst various voter segments. The surveys have empowered election managers in addressing various issues that the voters face. The knowledge and insights gained from these surveys have also led to the fulfilment of service gaps hitherto unknown.

An analysis of gender-disaggregated data in the electoral rolls indicated a considerable gender gap, much below the national population ratio. The survey highlighted areas where interventions were required. Concern for personal security (as women feared that polling booths attract anti-social elements), dependence on the approval of family elders, especially men, and lack of adequate toilet facilities were some of the factors that kept many women away from voting. Consequently, a communication targeted at family elders to break their resistance to women of the family participating in polls and messages allaying fears on security were included in the overall communication campaign.

The innovations continue, for example, in the Bihar state assembly elections in November 2010, the strategy included motivation through generating awareness by having a popular local female icon, Sharada Sinha, as the face and voice of the campaign. The focus of the strategy was twofold—provide a safe and secure environment for voting to women and motivate women to come out and cast their votes as a sign of their empowerment. Areas with relatively greater gender gaps were identified for increased ECI intervention; this worked. As a result, female voters at 54.85 per cent outnumbered male voters at 50.77 per cent—a clear lead of eight per hundred.

An extract from An Undocumented Wonder: The Great Indian Election by SY Quraishi, published by Rainlight Rupa; pp 416; Rs 795.


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