It takes five million workers to pull off India’s election. Shreya Roy Chowdhury and Mridula Chari bring you their stories in a series called The Silent Army.

By around 9.30 am on Thursday, Malogam village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district had achieved a 100% voter turnout. Its sole voter, Sokela Tayang, 39, had arrived in the tin shed that was the village’s makeshift polling station and cast her vote for both the state assembly and the Lok Sabha elections.

With that, work was done for presiding officer Gammar Bam.

Though it was over in a flash, setting up the station had taken considerable effort. Malogam is nestled in the jungles and mountains bordering Tibet. The 2011 Census had recorded just five residents and one household in Malogam village. Tayang is its only registered voter.

The five-member election team headed by Bam, 34, who usually works as a junior engineer with Arunachal Pradesh’s power department, had set out early on Wednesday morning, first travelling by bus and then by foot.

Normally, the Election Commission of India requires the process of assigning an employee to a location to be random. But in this case, the district election officer was permitted to pick polling staff who could do the trek up into the hills.

Before the polling, an official was sent to locate Tayang and inform her about the schedule.

Even though the team had wrapped up its work early, the poor mobile network in the area mean that the district administration was unable to get in touch with the polling party to establish that. It was only by early evening that the police informed Sode Potom, the assistant returning officer of Hawai and Hayuliang circle under which Malogam falls, that Tayang had cast her vote.

Asked if one vote was worth the effort, Potom had no hesitation: “We cannot deprive anyone of their voting right, their right to participate in the democratic process, because of their location,” he said.

Locating Sokela Tayang

Bam, however, had been slightly sceptical about the enterprise. It isn’t as if he minded leading the team up on the trek. “I can take them in two hours, no problem,” he had said. But he was loath to leave his family, especially his six-month-old daughter, for two days.

A few days after he learned he would be leading the party, he had sent a colleague on a scouting mission to Malogam. His colleague had not been able to locate any families there. The area had been surveyed about five or six months ago for a solar power project and even then, no one could be found, Bam had told on April 8.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the polling station had two voters – Tayang and her husband, Janelum Tayang. But he had since transferred his vote elsewhere.

Even the district election officer, responsible for organising the elections in a district, Dagbom Riba, had been unsure about Tayang’s whereabouts. On April 5, he told that he had received “some reports that the woman had moved closer to the road”, referring to the road connecting Lohit district with Anjaw.

To confirm this, he sent his sector magistrate – an official who oversees the conduct of voting in clusters of 10-15 booths. The sector magistrate “located her home but she was out of station”, said Potom.

Setting out for Malogam, in Arunachal Pradesh.

No one left behind

When they set out on Wednesday, Bam’s team included Rupak Tamang from the Tezu office of the deputy director of school education, Sonumlum Tindiya from the office of the assistant deputy commissioner of Hayuliang and Titenso Yun, a “multi-purpose worker” with a primary healthcare sub-centre in Chipru village in Anjaw. There was also an attendant and a guard.

Potom went along too, even though he wasn’t part of the official election party.

The team collected two sets of electronic voting machines from Hawai, the district headquarters – one for the Lok Sabha polls, another for the state assembly. They then rode a bus with other polling parties going to Tidding and Paya villages in Anjaw. From Tidding, they had to get out of the bus and start climbing on foot to Malogam, a distance of about 6 km over uneven and overgrown terrain, said Riba.

Anjaw is thinly populated. “Here, a village with 100 residents is a big village,” said Bam.

Hailing from Lepa Rada, the state’s newest district carved out from Lower Siang in December, 2018, Bam has lived in Hayuliang circle for eight years and travelled in it extensively. “The mountains are so steep, you do not have enough space for many families to build homes and live together,” he said. “Even a place with two homes is counted as a village and one with five-10 homes is considered normal.”

He added: “Sometimes, to make best use of the little space available, seven-eight families may build one long structure and share it.”

As per the 2011 Census, only 19 out of the 100 habitations in the Hayuliang community development block had more than 100 residents.

According to the same Census document, Malogam has no school or public structure that could be used as a polling station. However, it does have a pincode – 792102 – and in that area, “the district election office marked the spot for the polling station”, Bam said.

Staying on duty

Even though Tayang had come early, Bam had been instructed to stay at the station till 5 pm on Thursday, when the polling hours officially ended. “You cannot switch off the electronic voting machine before 5 pm,” said Potom.

This is because candidates contesting elections are allowed to send their representatives, called “polling agents”, to the booths to keep a check on proceedings and ensure no one is allowed to vote multiple times or impersonate another voter. A “vote could be challenged” by an agent.

The polling party remained in the shed for eight hours after Tayang had cast her vote. “When you are on duty, you cannot even go out,” said Bam. “So we sat around doing nothing.”

They left at around 5.30 pm and made their way back to the main road on foot after sundown.

It is unlikely that any of the five candidates in Arunachal East lost any sleep over Tayang’s vote. But, as Bam said, the district administration and the polling party “had to do whatever the rule says”.

Read more in the series:

The Silent Army: Behind India’s election are five million workers. This series brings you their stories

The Silent Army: In Arunachal, election staff are chosen on their ability to walk – for days

The Silent Army: In Maharashtra, a day in the life of a district election control room

The Silent Army: Meet the flying squads that are enforcing EC’s model code of conduct on the ground