The journey towards creating a political space for disabled people has been tough as elections after elections, neither the Election Commission nor the mainstream polity of the nation have shown adequate seriousness to allow disabled people to exercise their franchise in a dignified and accessible manner, writes Meenu Bhambhani.
Ever since the Election Commission announced the dates of Assembly elections in four States (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam) and Union Territory of Pondicherry, news is pouring from Tamil Nadu about the strategies disability activists are planning to get visibility and space in the echelons of electoral politics. Elections are slated in these States and Union Territory in two to three phases between April and May 2006.
On one hand, young disability activists like Rajiv Rajan of Disability Law Unit South have launched a campaign targeting Election Commission and political parties to ensure disabled friendly elections not just in Tamil Nadu but in Kerala and Pondicherry as well; two other organisations – Nandini: Voice of the Deprived and Tamil Nadu Handicapped Welfare Federation Trust – have decided to boycott the forthcoming poll in Tamil Nadu, “so that the extent of their frustration and disappointment [is] understood by the government, political parties and the society”. It is heartwarming to notice that disabled people are alive to the issue of their political identity and are striving to participate in the democratic process of the country.
Across the world, it is an acknowledged fact and there is “overwhelming evidence” that “disabled people are a disadvantaged and a marginalised constituency…Disabled People have never been seen as a collective group but merely as a series of individuals suffering impairments. Disability has not been considered as a matter of political power and oppression but as the outcome of physical incapacity and as the domain of medical and welfare professionals” (From “Making the Difference: Disability, Politics, and Recognition” in Gary Albrecht, Katherine D. Seelman and Michael Bury edited Handbook of Disability Studies). However, in the last ten years, disabled people in India have woken up to realise that unless they reassert themselves as an identity group and seek citizenship rights, their concerns will remain unaddressed, voices unheard and needs unmet.
In 2004, therefore, Disabled Rights Group, on one hand decided to contest the General Elections, and on the other hand took the all important issue of making election process disabled friendly. It was felt that unless disabled people are able to exercise their right to vote and elect their representatives, they will never be seen as a distinct constituency that can participate in nation building and also challenge the political equations heavily tilted, till date, in favour of other socially, economically, and politically marginalized yet significant vote banks (read dalits, tribes and other backward classes).
The journey, so far, towards creating political space for disability identity group has not been easy. And in election after election one has to be alive to the realities that neither the Election Commission at the Centre nor the State Election Commission will be serious enough to ensure that disabled people are able to exercise their right to franchise in a dignified manner. It may be recalled that in April 2004, D.R.G. had written to the Hon'ble Chief Justice of India regarding the issue, which was converted into a Public Interest Litigation (P.I.L.). In its decision, Supreme Court directed the Election Commission and all the Chief Secretaries in the States and Union Territories to make wooden ramps in all the polling booths in urban cities and as far as possible in the rural areas as well.
However, in spite of Hon’ble Supreme Court’s Order, no concrete steps were taken in the Assembly and bye-elections that took place in Haryana, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra in recent times. Public Interest Litigations had to be filed in the Maharashtra High Court and in the Jharkhand High Court, when the State Election Commissions refused to make facilities for disabled voters. Haryana State Disability Commissioner had to resign in protest, when the State Election Commission did not make facilities for disabled voters at the time of Assembly Elections in Haryana. In an affidavit, filed in the Maharashtra High Court, Election Commission had stated that they will take all steps to set in place a system to ensure that visually impaired people are able to vote. However, in spite of the promises, it failed to enforce upon State Election Commissioners to make facilities for disabled voters.
D.R.G. and its associate organisations protested against the callousness of the Election Commission, as a result of which EVM with Braille Numerics was tested on 1st October 2004 and was implemented at Asif Nagar Constituency on 13th October 2004. However, these EVMs have not been made available in any of the other elections that took place after that, denying visually impaired voters their right to secret ballot, in spite of the availability of technology.
Election Commission has now issued some directions to the Returning Officers in the States where elections are due in April and May that polling booths should be located at ground floor and that ramps should be provided. However, such arrangements will only cater to the requirements of the mobility impaired disabled voters. The concerns of visually and hearing impaired people are once again being ignored.
Ashiwini Kumar, from National Association for the Blind, himself a visually impaired person assailed the Election Commission for grossly discriminating against visually impaired voters. He said, “It is sad that despite availability of technology, no steps have been taken to ensure that visually impaired voters get to exercise their right to secret ballot. It is nothing but a clear policy of denial of a democratic right…The reason for this problem definitely is that we do not build an inclusive environment even though it may be feasible and, thus, perpetuate a system of exclusion”.
According to Global Initiative to Enfranchise People with Disabilities, there are countries like El Salvador, Ghana, and Sierra Leone where voters who are blind have access to a Braille and/or tactile ballot guide, enabling them to vote independently and in secret. What is significant here is that these are some of the poorest nations of Latin America and Africa who have been progressive enough to ensure equal participation of disabled voters.
Election Commission in India, in a recent affidavit filed in the Supreme Court has given statistics about the number of visually impaired voters who used Braille ballot and Braille E.V.M in the elections held subsequently after the Supreme Court judgement of April 2004. According to the Election Commission, in Maharashtra Assembly Elections only 128 visually impaired voters in 38 constituencies used the Braille Ballot. In Asif Nagar constituency in Andhra Pradesh and Patna Central in Bihar not a single voter used the facility, and in Jamshedpur and Gurgaon only four and three electors respectively used the facility. The intent of Election Commission in quoting these figures is obvious. The argument that it is attempting to put forth before the Judiciary is that since the number of users is not substantial enough, it is not feasible to invest in providing disabled friendly facilities at polling stations.
This is a systemic way of keeping disabled people at the margins and thus rendering them disempowered, voiceless and invisible. Their right to citizenship is denied by barring admittance to “full political rights, in that they are denied access to polling stations, information on which to base informed choices, and full inclusion in the political process. The under representation of disabled people in the…echelons of …political parties and at the higher levels of decision making...” in India supports the assertion of denial of citizenship rights and equal opportunity to participate in the democratic system of the country. But disabled people themselves have to be alert to respond to such systemic discrimination. Unless we as an identity group, as a community, register our presence and lead on the movement, we will remain measly numbers.