Policy and Law > Success Stories
Polling booths will now be accessible
Despite the fact that in 1995 disabled people were guaranteed equal opportunities with the passing of the Disability Act, the situation for the 14th Lok Sabha elections had not changed. After a sustained campaign, the disabled electorate was able to cast its vote in General Elections 2004 – making this the first truly democratic one since independence.
General elections 2004 not only saw a government topple and political leaders change; it also saw winds of change in the official attitude towards persons with disabilities. Some heads that were buried in the sand were pulled out, blinkers were removed from policy-makers’ eyes, and an invisible electorate – invisible behind a cloak of official apathy for many long years – was finally able to decide who its elected representatives would be.
On April 19, the Supreme Court ordered the State governments to provide wooden ramps as far as possible in all polling booths across the country for the second phase of elections, and without fail in the last two phases on May 5 and May 10.
No special arrangements such as Braille facilities for the visually challenged people were made. However, the Supreme Court ordered that for all future elections, starting from September 2004, Braille labels giving the names and numbers of candidates should be on all Electronic Voting Machines (E.V.M.s). This is an expansion of the original request, which was limited to providing Braille numbers on E.V.M.s.
When the elections had been announced earlier this year, the lack of sensitivity by the Election Commission towards the impediments that disabled people face at polling booths disappointed this sector.
Despite the fact that disabled people were guaranteed equal opportunities with the passing of the Disability Act in 1995, the situation for the 14th Lok Sabha elections had not changed. It was the fourth General Election since the passing of the Bill but facilities for millions of voters were still missing at polling stations across the country. Aren’t persons with disabilities citizens of India? Don’t they have the right to vote?
"We had been requesting the Election Commission to make polling booths disabled-friendly so that these people too could come in large numbers to caste their votes. However, it did not happen," said Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) Convenor and spokesman Mr. Javed Abidi. "Time was running out. Is it not the duty of the Election Commission to ensure law and order at the polling booths for free and fair elections? But what about the rights of the disabled?"
Mr. Abidi says that the Commission has taken care to ensure that the election duty officials and Army men can caste their votes through postal or proxy voting. But several disabled people have to return home without casting their votes due to lack of accessibility at polling booths, he pointed out. Not only are the polling booths inaccessible for them, even the polling officers are not sensitive to the physically-disabled voter. Hearing impaired voters also face harassment and abuse from polling officials, who often fail to understand their needs and difficulties.
The D.R.G. wanted sensitised officials, adequate ramps, signage boards and embossing on the electronic voting machines or ballot papers in Braille to help the physically and visually-impaired to caste their votes. There are about 7 crore disabled people in India, of whom about 5 crore are eligible to vote."
Lakhs of rupees are spent on preparing polling booths for election day but none of that money is allocated to ensure disabled people are given the same democratic rights as so-called able-bodied voters. It would cost no more than Rupees 600 for a polling station to be provided with a safe, appropriate ramp; some polling stations would need smaller ramps which could cut that cost to as little as Rupees 200. The provision of Braille stickers for EVMs would cost just Rupees 5-10 – a small price to pay for ensuring the elections are truly democratic for all eligible voters.
D.R.G. then proved how quick, easy and cheap the process could be by building ramps of different sizes outside the Chief Election Commisioner’s (C.E.C.) office.
The D.R.G. also appealed to the President, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, to facilitate smooth voting for the more than 40 million physically disabled Indian voters. In a representation to the President, Mr. Abidi said, "Time is running out. With every passing day, it will become that much more difficult for the nation to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against in this election also. There are only five very simple things that the Election Commission has to do in order to make the 'general' elections disabled-friendly.A document was presented to the Election Commission outlining the problems faced by disabled voters, and the solutions to them.
Problem 1: Lack of transport facility disenfranchises
millions of disabled voters
Solution: Government to issue directive to public transport such as buses to pay special attention to disabled voters, giving them enough time to board the buses and disembarking as close to the polling booth as possible.
Problem 2: Barriers and barricades put up
at the polling booths by security agencies
Solution: Electin Commissin to issue directive to allow vehicles carrying disabled persons to go up to the polling booth. Special stickers can be issue to such vehicles.
Problem 3: Polling booths themselves have
steps that are difficult to negotiate.
Solution: Provide wooden ramps at polling stations
Problem 4: Visually impaired voters can
not cast their vote in secrecy and have to take the help of someone.
Solution: Print numbers in Braille and stick them on the EVMs
Problem 5: Hearing impaired voters
are harassed because of their invisible disability
Solution: Election Commission to send a firm circular sensitizing their staff about such voters.
Not willing to take this apathy any longer, members of the disability sector staged a dharna in front of the office of the Chief Election Commissioner on March 26 to highlight their problems. Hundreds of disabled people and activists attempted to convene in front of the C.E.C. office to voice their frustrations at being denied their democratic rights. However, police had imposed a prohibitory order around the offices and one demonstrator described how they were "bundled into police vans and sent to Jantar Mantar". Not to be defeated, a gherao was held on April 2. It was only under such continued pressure that the C.E.C. felt the need to consider the requirements of disabled voters. C.E.C. T.S. Krishnamurthy finally agreed to meet with a seven-member delegation of D.R.G. leaders on April 5.
On April 14, Mr. Abidi started a fast-unto-death in an attempt to force the Election Commission to issue a new statement on polling station accessibility.
Succour came when a letter written by D.R.G. to the Chief Justice of India (C.J.I.), Mr. V.N. Khare, recommending that election procedures be made disabled friendly, was treated as a Public Interest Litigation (P.I.L.). It came up for hearing in the Court of the Chief Justice on April 16, 2004.
On April 19, the Supreme Court ordered the State governments to provide wooden ramps as far as possible in all polling booths across the country for the second phase of elections, and without fail in the last two phases on May 5 and May 10. The Court also ordered that for all future elections, starting from September 2004, Braille labels giving the names and numbers of candidates should be on all E.V.M.s.
There was no expectation of the order being imposed for the first and second phase of polling, on April 21 and 22, as it was not deemed practical to provide the necessary facilities at such short notice. In the light of the court's decision, the C.J.I. then asked D.R.G. to persuade its Convenor, Javed Mr. Abidi, to end his fast.
"Temporary wooden ramps at all polling stations, in all cities, all over the country send a loud and clear message to policy makers not to take disabled people for granted anymore and give them their rightful place in society," said Mr. Abidi.
Success at long last!
Over a hundred disabled people gathered at India Gate to celebrate the Supreme Court’s judgement. The verdict is a positive step towards providing access to public places for disabled people. Representatives from various organisations gathered to celebrate to the sound of loud sloganeering and the beat of drums. "We are proud of the decision made by the Supreme Court," said Mr. Abidi. He however slammed the Bharatiya Janta Party and Congress for not including the issue of disability in their manifestos.
Mr. Alok Sikka, a disabled person present at the celebrations said, "Merely getting entitled to this right would not be enough. We should exercise the right. Only then will it hold any meaning."