Over the past year, united action by the disability sector resulted in -- for the first time in the history of independent India -- disabled voters exercising their franchise in an independent and dignified manner. This victory, however, is woefully inadequate, feels Anjali Sen Gupta
India’s General Election of 2004 was a historic one in more ways than one. A woman who was, it seemed, destined to rule bowed modestly away from the limelight. And an invisible section of the population, which had so far been denied their rights, stepped into the limelight. Armed with nothing but dogged stubbornness and an unshakeable belief in the sanctity of its rights, India’s disability sector took on the Election Commission and, assisted by the Courts, changed forever the voting process of the largest democracy of the world.
Profound as it may seem, this step towards change is but a small victory. There is still much to be done and, as with any attempt to change the status quo, there is no dearth of opposition.
The gains that the disability sector has made over the past year were not easy to achieve. On 4 March 2004, Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) submitted a document to the Election Commission (E.C.) that listed five problems faced by disabled voters, along with their possible solutions. The Chief Election Commissioner promised to meet D.R.G. members, but that meeting never took place.
When the authorities casually brushed aside the demands of millions of disabled voters, the latter decided to mobilise public opinion. A quarter-page advertisement appeared in the Asian Age on 15 March. On 26 March, D.R.G. organised a dharna outside the E.C.’s office on Ashoka Road, New Delhi. D.R.G. also took along carpenters who constructed ramps from scratch in full view of the media to demonstrate the ease with which the polling stations could be made accessible for wheelchairs. Meanwhile, activists raised slogans asking for their fundamental right to vote with dignity.
The voices raised in unison on that hot summer day did reach the ears of the powers-that-be in their air-conditioned rooms. But their reaction was against all reason – instead of meeting with the delegates, the officials called the police! Maybe for them, a gathering of Indian citizens, asking for their Constitutional right to vote, is fit only to be gagged and shackled.
Not leaving anything to chance, D.R.G. wrote to the President of India, apprising him of the developments and asking him for an appointment. On 8 April, a delegation met with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who said he would talk to the authorities.
The E.C. sent a circular to Chief Electoral Officers of all States to provide wooden ramps “wherever possible”! In India, we all know what ‘wherever possible’ means. The circular failed to make any mention of Braille signage for visually impaired voters. It was clear that the Commission was not taking the needs of disabled voters seriously.
Incensed by the weak instructions of the circular, and frustrated by the indifference of the Election Commission, D.R.G. decided to intensify its efforts.
On 14 April, Javed Abidi, Convenor of D.R.G., began a fast-unto-death just a stone’s throw away from the Election Commission’s office. D.R.G. also wrote a letter to V.N. Khare, Chief Justice of India, asking him to intervene and treat the letter as a Public Interest Litigation (P.I.L.).
The Chief Justice appointed Harish N. Salve, Senior Advocate, as Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) to assist the Court. The letter was treated as a P.I.L.
What the Election Commission could not understand for weeks, the Court understood within hours. On 19 April 2004, the Court directed the Chief Secretaries of respective States to ensure that wooden ramps were made available as far as possible for the first leg of the election on 26 April. For the second and third rounds of elections to be held on 5th and 10th May, it was made mandatory for wooden ramps to be put at all polling stations in cities and urban areas.
The remaining issues, which included Braille signage, were to be heard after the summer vacations of the Court. At that time, the E.C. had categorically stated that it would put the systems in place to include facilities for visually impaired voters before the next elections.
This landmark judgment, in one stroke, empowered millions of disabled persons across the country. Backed by the law, they could now demand the full implementation of the judgment for Assembly Elections as well.
True to form, the E.C. dragged its feet in implementing the Court’s Order. As the dates for Assembly Elections neared in Maharashtra and Arunachal Pradesh, checks by disability organisations revealed that the Election Commission of India was once again found to be napping, wholly unprepared to conduct the elections in a disabled-friendly manner.
As earlier in the year, the disability sector first tried to get the issue resolved by way of negotiations. Disability groups in Mumbai met with the State Election Commission in July 2004, requesting facilities for disabled voters in the Assembly Elections. The powers-that-be categorically refused to make any facility for disabled people. Their reasons? They said the Order was meant only for the General Elections and did not apply for the Assembly Elections!
An agitation was launched in Mumbai. The Disabled Rights Group (Mumbai) filed a P.I.L. against the State Election Commission in Mumbai High Court on 22 September.
On 24 September, the arguments were held in the Court of the Chief Justice and his companion Judge, Justice Chandrachud. The judges emphasised that the elections should be held in a free and fair manner for all citizens, including the disabled citizens of the country. (At a conservative estimate, there are at least 10 lakh voters with disabilities in the State of Maharashtra alone.)
Meanwhile, another massive demonstration and dharna was organised in New Delhi on 28 September, outside the E.C. The Election Commission finally disclosed that wooden ramps would be put up at all polling stations in the urban areas, and that Braille E.V.M.s, or electronic voting machines, would be tested in Hyderabad on 1st October. If successful, Braille E.V.M.s would be used in some constituencies, especially in the Asif Nagar constituency By-election in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.
Back in Mumbai, the High Court acted swiftly. On 30 September, 2004, it ordered that: Braille ballot sheets be provided at 9,000 polling stations (out of the total of 66,000 in Maharashtra) in the Mumbai and Thane region; Braille facility be made available at all polling stations in all future elections; and wooden ramps be provided at all polling stations in the urban areas of Maharashtra in the Assembly Elections.
The reality, however, proved to be otherwise. According to Abidi, “[In Mumbai], disabled people were disappointed once again to find that ramps were missing even in urban areas of Mumbai, in total violation of the assurance given by the E.C. to the Mumbai High Court.”
Despite the failures in the system, what is laudable is the fact that this was the first time in the history of independent India that the EC made a serious attempt to ensure that visually impaired voters could exercise their franchise in an independent and dignified manner.
In Andhra Pradesh too hopes were dashed to the ground. Persons with disabilities came in large numbers to exercise their right to franchise, but ramps were missing in several polling booths. What was significant was that E.V.M.s with Braille numerics were successfully used in Asif Nagar constituency. For the first time in independent India, visually impaired and blind voters were able to exercise secret ballot.
Next on the list were elections in Arunachal Pradesh. On Election Day, a reality check of 10 polling booths was made in Naharlagun; photographs were taken and statements from the Presiding Officers noted.
The verdict: No ramps, as prescribed by the Supreme Court Order, were provided to make the polling booths accessible and barrier-free for persons with disability. This was an outright violation of the Supreme Court Order!
The case was not very different in the Jharkhand Assembly Elections. Though disability groups had raised the issue well in time, there was total resistance from the State Election Commission. Again, a P.I.L. had to be filed to ensure facilities for disabled voters.
Haryana too saw its share of drama. No special arrangements had been made for disabled voters. In fact, the State Election Commissioner had ruled out Braille voting machines as it was presumed that the State did not have many disabled voters! The authorities also acted on the assumption that most of the blind population in the state would not know how to use Braille.
Such blatant disregard for disabled voters invoked the ire of Commissioner for Persons with Disability, M.S. Ahluwalia. He ruled that the then Chief Election Commissioner, . T.S. Krishnamurthy, was “guilty” with regard to the charges of failing to provide adequate provisions for disabled voters. Mr. Ahluwalia wanted the election declared null and void. When the Election Commission failed to rectify the glaring gaps, . Ahluwalia resigned in protest.
The story was repeated in the Goa Assembly Bye-election and despite a dogged determination on the part of disability groups and a media campaign the arrangement was missing to the extent needed.
Elections are now round the corner in Bihar. Election observers have been issuing instructions to returning officers to make ramps and have Braille-enabled E.V.M.s. Says National Disability Network (N.D.N.) Partner Mohan Choudhary, of Bihar Vikalang Parishad, “I have heard about such initiatives from local officials and local news reports. But it must be said that it is only at the time of polling that we will see ground realities.
It has been more than one year since the Supreme Court delivered its landmark judgment. The Apex Court’s instructions that elections be made disabled friendly have been violated – in letter and in spirit – wherever elections were held over the past year. Facilities for disabled voters, where they did exist, were more the exception than the norm.
The current state of affairs, thus, forces us to ask some brutal questions.
Why are State Election Commissioners so sluggish in implementing disabled-friendly provisions? Why are Disability Commissioners napping with regard to this issue? Why have officials not been brought to book for dereliction of duty?
In every election, a large number of citizens cannot vote – due to official shortsightedness and sheer apathy.
It is a matter of national shame that 60-70 million Indians are denied their Fundamental Right to cast their vote 58 years after Independence, and 10 years after the passing of the Disability Act.
If a handful of disability organisations could wrest some concessions, imagine the benefits that 1 billion people could usher for their disabled compatriots. Imagine the power of a democracy where all citizens can – with dignity – choose their elected representatives.
The successes won by the disability sector over the past year are woefully inadequate. The aspirations of persons with disability – India’s invisible majority – must become the collective demand of the nation. Only then can India’s election processes become truly disabled friendly.