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.


We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.