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.

As 117 constituencies across India voted in the third phase of the general election on April 23, disability rights activist Santosh Jadhav, who lives in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, found himself unable to cast his vote directly.

When Jadhav, 33, arrived at the polling booth on a specially modified motorbike with his wife, he was unable to use the wheelchair provided to him to go up the ramp. The wheelchair was too small for him. So, his wife, who also has a disability and walks with a crutch, had to cast his vote. The presiding officer came outside to verify this and mark Jadhav’s finger with ink.

“According to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, there should be two helpers to get us to the booth and the booth should be right in front of the ramp,” said Jadhav, who works with the disability rights NGO Prahar Sanghatna. “There should have been a feedback form to ask me about my experience but there is no such facility here.”

The Act, passed in 2016, requires the Election Commission of India and its state chapters to ensure polling booths are accessible to persons with disabilities and that all material is easily understandable by them. The election commission has chosen two themes for this year’s election: encouraging women to vote and making polling stations accessible to people with disabilities.

In keeping with the second theme, the poll body has mandated that all booths be made accessible. In practice, this has involved making booths accessible to people with reduced mobility, with district administrations instructed to send vehicles to bring such voters and provide wheelchairs and ramps at polling stations.

“We deployed three to four vehicles for PWD voters in each Assembly constituency as it would not be possible to provide vehicles for all 2,030 booths,” said Rahul Dwivedi, district election officer in Ahmednagar. To avail of the facility, he added, voters with disabilities had to apply in advance to the Booth Level Officer, the Assistant Returning Officer or the local tehsildar. Wheelchairs, though, were made available at all polling booths.

A wheelchair at a polling booth in Hamidpur village, Ahmednagar. The wheelchair had not been used until noon. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Speaking over the phone the day after voting, Jadhav said he had registered with the booth level officer around a month earlier but still did not get a vehicle to take him to the booth. “Several people with disabilities across Maharashtra faced similar problems yesterday,” he added. “For many of us, this election was not very different from previous ones.”

Women voters

The poll body’s other theme for this election, encouraging women to vote, too seems to run thin on the ground.

In 2017, the election commission announced women-only polling booths, called “pink polling booths” or “sakhi polling booths”, for that year’s Assembly polls. In November 2018, it asked the states to consider setting up these booths for the general election as well. It, however, revised a request that staff at such booths be asked to wear pink, after the Congress in Telangana complained that pink was the colour of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti.

The states have followed up in different ways. Manipur announced that all 38 polling booths in Imphal’s Yaiskhul Assembly constituency would be staffed by only women. Karnataka set up 600 all-women polling booths while Maharashtra decided to have at least one in each of its 288 Assembly constituencies.

Two booth level officers and a village development officer in Nimbalgaon Wagha. Though this was not formally designated a 'Sakhi polling booth', two of the four booth level officers were women. On voting day, these officials guide voters to the correct polling station. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

At one of the two sakhi polling booths in Ahmednagar city, pink was not a running theme. Instead, the entrance to the booth was festooned with red, yellow and purple balloons and had large cut-outs for voters to take selfies with. They were all designed by Amol Bagul, an enthusiastic local schoolteacher, who said he had received over 20,000 selfies from people promoting voting in the last two days.

Still, the theme ran thin. Only three of the five police officials at the polling booth were women and just two of the five presiding officers. There were 2,030 polling stations in the Ahmednagar parliamentary constituency, staffed by around 9,000 people.

A woman police officer posted at one of the sakhi booths was not enthused about the distinction. “This is just a fad,” she said, asking not to be named. “Posting women here will make no difference, unless we are regularly assigned these roles.”

Quiet day

Polling in Ahmednagar was largely uneventful from the point of view of the district control room, where callers mostly asked for voter turnout and security updates for the electronic voting machines. By around 5 pm, most of the approximately 200 phone complaints on the ECI’s 1950 helpline were from people whose names had either been deleted from or did not appear on the electoral rolls.

At the Media Coordination and Monitoring Committee’s office, set up in the district magistrate’s compound, Marathi TV news channels focused on the 14 Maharashtra constituencies voting in the third phase. News about Ahmednagar was restricted largely to its candidates arriving to cast their ballots.

There was a flurry of activity only at around 2.30 pm, when Jai Maharashtra channel flashed a ticker saying a voting machine in Baburdi village in Parner taluka had been broken by an unknown person. But calls to polling officials there revealed the news was exaggerated. A retired Army officer had hit the machine and had been detained. The machine was not damaged.

For much of the day, the committee fielded reporters’ requests for turnout figures and data on EVM replacements – which was around 5% in the district. Turnout figures are compiled by presiding officers, who pass them to sector officers in charge of 10-15 booths, who in turn send the data up the system until it reaches the deputy district election officer in charge of this monitoring.

Ashwini Joshi, who runs a 'ladies shop', and Ketki Joshi take a selfie at the entrance of a sakhi polling station in Ahmednagar city. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

On polling day, the major task of Ravikumar Pantam, a sector officer in Ahmednagar city, was to monitor activities at the 15 booths under his supervision and report regularly to the assistant returning officer. At the time this reporter visited him, Pantam was tallying turnout figures until 1 pm.

“I have been asked to maintain both digital and paper records of polling figures because the digital system is not clear,” Pantam said with some irritation, referring to the Poll Day Management System for centralising updates on turnout. “Instead of reducing our work, digitisation has increased it.”

He added, however, that the key difference he saw in this election was a marked increase in awareness camps for voters.

Polling officials stayed up late, waiting for EVMs to be returned to the constituency’s strongroom. The last EVMs arrived from Karjat taluka at around 1.30 am. They will stay in the strongroom, which is guarded round the clock, until counting day on May 23.

Read more in the series:

The Silent Army: How EC implements confusion by design for poll teams, EVMs to ensure fair elections

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

The Silent Army: How 6 Arunachal officials travelled 2 days to open a poll booth for only 1 vote

The Silent Army: From inflammatory speeches to rugs at rallies, EC videographers shoot it all