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Differently abled voters’ rights: Activists demand apology from Election Commission

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Do the voting rights of Indian citizens depend on their different abilities – whether mobility or sight? Asks angry activists in a letter addressed to the Election Commission of India

By Team FI

Inaccessible booths, lack of facilities for wheelchair users, the absence of braille stickers for the visually impaired and lack of support from the staff at the voting booths had created a humiliating and despairing situation for many differently abled voters who could not use their democratic right to cast their vote in the Delhi elections held recently.

Protesting against this, citizens and activists in a letter to the Election Commission (EC) of India have called for a public, written apology from the EC and the Cheif Electoral Officer, Delhi, to the differently abled voters in the capital of the country. And with written assurances, provide facilities for the visually impaired and wheelchair bound citizens, with the information about these facilities to be publicized thoroughly through every media.

Full text of the Letter
Even as Delhi hails an impressive voter out and calls it a ‘historic’ poll, the truth is that wheel chair users or visually impaired voters were effectively sought to be disenfranchised in this election. This is not only a matter of deep shame but a complete violation of Supreme Court orders.

Just a day before Delhi went to polls we marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3rd 2013. This was an occasion to renew our commitments to full inclusion and access, yet one day later India and Delhi violated this very promise.

We would like to remind the nation and the Election Commission of India that Delhi has 80,000 disabled voters. Yet, there was no information in print, television or radio on facilities for visually impaired voters or wheel chair users. Moreover, the website of Election Commission of India remains inaccessible to visually impaired persons. Do the voting rights of Indian citizens depend on their different abilities – whether mobility or sight?

Given below are a few examples of what has clearly been a widespread violation of the rights of differently abled voters across Delhi:

• West Rajouri Garden Polling booth number 138 had no ramps for wheelchairs and no braille stickers.
Dr. Anita Ghai, who uses a wheel chair could not reach the booth, but because she stood there protesting, she was lifted by the NDTV team as well as authorities and taken to the booth. The desire and determination was simply to vote, because to not vote would go against her democratic and feminist principles.

• Mr. Virender Kalra, a bank manager and a resident of Subhash Nagar, found there was no ramp for his wheelchair, so he got two persons to lift him and take him inside the polling booth.

• Polling booths number 11, 12,13, 14 in Rajokri had no ramps and braille stickers.

• Polling booth 13 in Rajokri had 7 stairs, again with no ramps.

• Abha Khetrapal , a wheelchair user could not cast her vote.

• Shivani Gupta (Booth no. 23 in 45 Mehrauli) could not cast her vote. She described her experience – ‘Yesterday I went to cast my vote for the Delhi assembly elections. This was the third time I had gone to cast my vote, but in terms of accessibility nothing had improved in so many years except there was a ramp. Having a ramp alone is not a solution to enable persons using wheelchairs to vote. I wasn’t able to cast my vote in spite of this ramp for the reasons described below. 1) The route to reach the ramp was inaccessible. It was a long uneven route difficult to negotiate for a wheelchair user. 2) The entry gate to the school had only the wicket gate open with a baton in the bottom at the height of 8 cm restricting wheelchair access. 3) The security did not have the key to be able to open the main gate. 4) The voting room entrance doors had wooden poles to divide the way to enter and exit the room. This division made the clear space to enter or exit the room very narrow for a wheelchair user to pass.

• Neeru Gautam, tried to cast her vote by taking her power chair all the way to the polling station in Block 26 Community Centre. She realised there was no ramp to enter and the entrance to the room was also blocked by a wooden pole which had been placed in the middle of the passage to segregate the incoming and leaving voters. She asked the election staff to come out and help her cast her vote. But despite repeated pleas, no one came forward. Then one person offered to lift her physically, which she refused as she felt it was humiliating and undignified, and came back without casting her vote.

For a person using a wheel chair, being physically lifted in this manner is deeply humiliating. And yet, many disabled voters, like Mr. Kalra and Dr. Anita Ghai, subjected themselves to this humiliation, as a determined act of citizenship, to make their voice count in our democracy. Others, similarly placed, did not or could not.

In the case of Dr. Anita Ghai, there was proof of this violation, merely because an NDTV camera crew, which had gone to cover a celebrity voting, coincidentally happened to be present at the time that she was trying to cast her vote, and so Dr. Anita Ghai was allowed, albeit in a humiliating manner, to exercise her franchise. In other instances, there is oftentimes no ‘proof’ that is demanded by the system, before it accepts or corrects its failures.

We must worry that if this is the situation in the nation’s capital, how grave the situation will be elsewhere, across the country, in smaller towns and cities and in rural areas.

The Election Commission is duty bound to ensure that each and every citizen can cast his or her vote. They ought to have implemented full access to differently abled citizens to polling booths and publicized them.

We demand:
The Election Commission of India and the Chief Electoral Officer, Delhi issue an immediate written and public apology to all differently abled voters who were unable to cast their vote in the Delhi election due to lack of facilities enabling them to do so.

The Election Commission of India to issue orders, and give written assurances that all facilities for the visually impaired and wheel chair bound citizens shall be provided in future elections across India. Further, that such facilities shall be duly publicized through the print and electronic media.