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The Supreme Court Order, 2007, to make Indian Elections accessible for citizens with disabilities, was preceded by a movement by the disability sector to sensitise the electoral authorities and political parties. Read more to know about the movement.


Lack of sensitivity by the Election Commission

When the elections had been announced earlier in 2004, the lack of sensitivity by the Election Commission towards the impediments that disabled people face at polling booths disappointed the disability sector.

"We had been requesting the Election Commission to make polling booths disabled-friendly so that disabled people too could come in large numbers to cast their votes. However, it did not happen," said Disabled Rights Group (DRG) Convenor Javed Abidi. "Time was running out. Is it not the duty of the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections? But what about the rights of persons with disabilities? There are about 7 crore disabled people in India, of whom about 4-5 crore are eligible to vote."

Abidi said that the Commission had taken care to ensure that the election duty officials and Army men could cast their votes through postal or proxy voting. But several disabled people had to return home without casting their votes due to lack of accessibility at polling booths, he pointed out. Not only were the polling booths inaccessible for them, even the polling officers were not sensitive to the physically disabled voter. Hearing impaired voters also faced harassment and abuse from polling officials, who often failed to understand their needs and difficulties.

The DRG. 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 cast their votes.

Disabled people seek political space

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 in 2004. It was the fourth General Election since the passing of the Act but facilities for millions of voters were still missing at polling stations across the country.

In an unprecedented show of strength, India's disabled people came out of their shell on March 20 and demanded their share of attention from political parties by, for starters, including their needs in election manifestos. The landmark event was a 'National Convention on political rights of disabled people' in New Delhi, convened by the Disabled Rights Group.

In order to make political parties realise the seriousness of their needs, around 700 people from 17 States of India came together in Delhi and submitted their Charter of Demands to the major national Political Parties.

A ramp was constructed outside the Chief Election Commissioner's office

This was to demonstrate the ease with which ramps could be made at polling booths. Lakhs of rupees were spent on preparing polling booths for the election day but none of that money was allocated to ensure disabled people were given the same democratic rights as other voters. It would cost no more than Rs. 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 Rs. 200/-. The provision of Braille stickers for EVMs would cost just Rs. 5/- -10/- – a small price to pay for ensuring the elections are truly democratic for all eligible voters.

DRG then proved how quick, easy and cheap the process could be by building ramps of different sizes outside the Chief Election Commissioner’s (CEC) Office.

Appeal to the then President, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

The DRG also appealed to the then 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, 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 were 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: Election Commission 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 cannot 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.

Opposition Party responds

Disabled Rights Group's campaign to make their voice heard did borne some fruit. The leader of the Opposition (Rajya Sabha), Manmohan Singh, wrote to Javed Abidi, Convener, DRG. and Executive Director, NCPEDP, assuring him that the Congress would "make every effort to reflect your concerns in our future ploy statements".

Some of Dr. Manmohan Singh's comments were:

"Many thanks for your letter... highlighting the problems of disabled persons for inclusion in our Election Manifesto.

"You have raised very legitimate concerns and I do not disagree about the priority attaching to these concerns. However, our Election Manifesto has already been published and we shall make every effort to reflect your concerns in our future policy statements.”

The protest got stronger and the CEC met a delegation of Disabled Rights Group

Not willing to take this apathy any longer, members of the disability sector had 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 CEC 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 CEC felt the need to consider the requirements of disabled voters. CEC T.S. Krishnamurthy finally agreed to meet with a seven-member delegation of DRG leaders on April 5.

EC issued a Circular - Too little too late

Following the meeting the Election Commissioner issued a Circular on April 7 stating that ‘provision of wooden ramps at polling booths "wherever possible'' Abidi called the circular a "mockery'' of their cause and expressed disappointment , “We are sick and tired. There is nothing new in this circular. It is similar to the letter by the Commission in 1998. We had made an entire note on how to make the elections disabled-friendly where we had mentioned the needs of the sector. But they have not taken into account any of that,'' said Abidi. As for the new provision for erecting wooden ramps wherever possible, the provision meant nothing, he added. "We all know that words such as "wherever possible'', "shall'' "could'' give space for people to make excuses. No one is accountable to make the wooden ramps. The exclusion of special provisions for the visually impaired and those affected by leprosy has also come as a disappointment for the activists of the disability sector” added Abidi.

Upset by "apathetic attitude'' of the Election Commission, the convenor of the Disabled Rights Group, Javed Abidi, also announced his decision to undertake a "fast unto death'' starting this Wednesday.

Javed Abidi started a fast-unto-death and Chief Justice of India takes up issue of accessible elections

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.

Disabled Rights Group (DRG) wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India, V.N. Khare, detailing the issue and the apathetic attitude of EC and with a request to treat this letter as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The Chief Justice immediately responded and the letter was taken up as a PIL the next day and asked EC to file its response. The Chief Justice then asked DRG representative to persuade its Convenor, Javed Abidi, to end his fast.

Supreme Court passes interim order for accessible elections

On April 19, the Supreme Court passed an interim order for the State governments to provide wooden ramps 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 SC took into account the difficulties faced by the physically challenged in approaching the polling booths to cast their votes. The verdict would allow disabled voters to exercise their franchise without difficulty.

No special arrangements such as Braille facilities for the visually challenged people would be made. However, the Supreme Court had ordered that for all future elections, starting from September 2004, Braille labels giving the names and numbers of candidates should be on all EVMs. This was an expansion of the original request, which was limited to providing Braille numbers on EVMs.

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,

"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," Abidi.

Celebration!

Sustained campaigns during the Indian Election of 2004 drew the nation's attention to the cause of disabled persons. Over a hundred disabled people gathered at India Gate to celebrate the Supreme Court’s judgment. The verdict was 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 Abidi.

Progress on issue of Braille for visually impaired voters

Javed Abidi, Convenor of Disabled Rights Group (DRG) and a delegation of visually impaired activists met with the Election Commissioner on September 29, to finalise arrangements vis-à-vis disabled friendly voting processes for the visually impaired people.

In order to arrive at a solution in a participative manner, a delegation including Vichitra Vijay, Patron, National Federation of the Blind; Dr Ashwani Kumar Agarwal, Joint Secretary, National Association for the Blind; Baldev Gulati, Executive Director, Navprerna; A. David, Placement Officer, The Blind Relief Association and Mr Rajshekhar, Programme Officer, Deepalaya, met with the Deputy Election Commissioner, A.N. Jha.

The issue discussed was Braille signage so that the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) can be made accessible for visually impaired voters. Jha disclosed that two or three prototypes were being made ready at the Electronics Corporation of India in Hyderabad. They are to be 'tested' on October 1. DRG members have been invited by the Election Commission to be present for this test run in Hyderabad.

An assurance has been given by the Election Commission (EC) that if the test-run is successful, the EVM would be used in at least some constituencies, especially in the by-election to the Asif Nagar constituency in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.

After a detailed discussion, it was agreed that the best and the most pragmatic way out is to have the buttons on the EVM numbered in Braille, while the list of candidates with their respective serial numbers and their election symbol will be available in Braille (in the concerned language depending on the region/state) with the Presiding Officer of the polling station.

EC has also stated that while mass production of EVMs may not be possible for these elections, at least the list of the candidates will be printed out in Braille in the urban constituencies of Maharashtra.

On the issue of extending the services only to urban disabled voters, Abidi recorded reservation and anguish with EC. He said, "DRG is not willing to accept the situation where the ramps for disabled and the Braille list of candidates for the visually impaired is made available only to the urban disabled voters."

It is the first time in the history of independent India that a serious attempt is being made by the EC to ensure that visually impaired voters are able to exercise their franchise in an independent and dignified manner.

Historic by-elections held in India

For the first time in the history of independent India, visually impaired voters were able to exercise their franchise in an independent and dignified manner, with their right to secret ballot.

The Election Commission (EC) finally decided on October 5 that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) to be used in the current by-elections in the 213 Asif Nagar assembly constituencies in Andhra Pradesh shall have stickers pasted to the right of the blue button (that is, the candidate's button) denoting the serial numbers of the candidates in Braille. Dummy ballot sheets were also prepared and kept at the polling booths, containing the serial numbers of the contesting candidate, their names and the party affiliation against the name of the candidate. These dummy ballot sheets in Braille were prepared in English, Telugu and Urdu.

As part of a pilot project that were finally implemented nation-wide, ballot papers in Braille were introduced for blind voters in the Maharashtra elections. Earlier, the Bombay High Court, hearing a public interest suit, had ordered that voters with physical disabilities be provided adequate facilities at polling booths.

To begin with, out of the total of 66,000 polling stations in Maharashtra, the EC had to provide dummy ballot sheets in Braille at 9,000 polling stations in the Mumbai and Thane region. Election officials said that ramps for people on wheelchairs and Braille ballot papers were also provided in some places.

Source: April – May, 2004, DNIS News Network

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