DNIS News Network - With the first and second phase of elections over and two more to go in Bihar, the issue of barrier-free polling booths is still not being taken up seriously after more than a year of the Supreme Court Order on the issue. On the positive side, for visually impaired voters, two constituencies of the Bihar Assembly, one each in Patna and Muzaffarpur, had Braille Ballot Sheets and Electronic Voting Machines (E .V.M .s) with Braille numeric. However, according to the report sent by Bihar National Disability Network Partner, Bihar Viklang Kalyan Parishad, no arrangements have been made for ramps at most of the polling booths.
It is the positive move to have E.V.M.s with Braille in two constituencies has cheered the visually impaired people of Muzaffarpur, as revealed by Dr. Sangeeta Aggarwal, General Secretary of Shubham, "Though I have been taking part in elections with the help of others for last 15 years, for the first time I felt that I was voting." However, it should also be noted that only two out of 243 constituencies in Bihar have been provided this facility. The EVM with Braille was successfully tested for the first time in October 2004 in Asif Nagar Constituency in Hyderabad. According to the activists of the disability sector, one year is a long enough time to ensure that all polling booths have this facility.
What was extremely shocking was the fact that ramps for wheelchair users were not provided in almost all the constituencies in Bihar, as revealed by our Partner. The Supreme Court had issued a landmark judgement in April 2004, which directed the State authorities to construct wooden ramps at all polling stations at least in the urban areas for the General Elections held in May 2004. It is now more than one and a half years since the Order of the Supreme Court. The ramps should have ideally become an integral part of the planning and setting up of the polling booths. The disability sector had also urged the Election Commission to extend the facility in the rural areas also.
The report of the Partner that facilities were not even provided in the urban cities of Bihar has taken us back in time. The struggle of Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) in April 2004, which led to the Order of the Supreme Court on the issue; and the subsequent pressure by disability organisations in every election that took place after that, including our latest representation to the Chief Election Commission, seems to have gone waste.
In September 2004, Disabled Rights Group in Mumbai filed a Public Interest Litigation (P.I.L.) which led to a firm direction to provide Braille Ballot Sheets in 9,000 polling stations in the Mumbai and Thane region and ramps in all the polling booths in the urban areas. In Jharkhand, where elections were held in February 2005, a P.I.L. had to be filed in the High Court in this regard. In Haryana, the State Commissioner, Disabilities resigned in protest when the promised facilities were not provided to disabled voters. In Arunachal Pradesh and Goa the State Election Commission made the right noises before the elections but an Access Audit of the polling booths revealed that those noises were meaningless. No facility was provided to disabled voters.