I voted for a change today. I must say though, in all frankness, that the experience was anything but enjoyable or uplifting.
A sustained campaign by the disability movement in India culminated in the enactment of the Disability Act in 1995, which guaranteed people with disabilities equal opportunities in all walks of life. Yet, it took instructions from the Supreme Court of India in April 2004 to ensure that an electorate which was so far invisible was able to exercise its right to universal franchise as enshrined in the constitution of India - for the first time perhaps - in the ensuing General Election - making it the first truly democratic one since independence.
The 2004 election saw a government topple and heads roll. What doesn't seem to have changed is the sheer apathy of the powers-that-be towards the specially-abled electorate. Despite news reports, attributed to the election commission, that special arrangements are in place for the senior citizens and the physically challenged to be able to vote, there were none it seems - certainly not where Jaipuria School, Vasundhara, Ghaziabad, is concerned. I walk with the help of crutches and find even short walking distances challenging and yet, despite telling the security men at the entrance that I would find it very difficult to negotiate the distance to the polling booth, I wasn't allowed to take my car to the entry porch, quite unlike the last time around, and had to walk about 50 metres to the hall that led to the polling booths and then further negotiate a flight of steps. To put it all in perspective, walking 50 metres for me is akin to your running a mile under 15 minutes - no mean feat am told - and having to negotiate a flight of steps thereafter is like being asked to do a set of jump squats after that mile long run! My travails didn't quite end there. I had to walk another 75 metres to the polling booth. A sentry on duty took a look at a, by now, profusely sweating yours truly and allowed me to jump to the head of the queue. There were other voters who were far worse off than me - I saw at least 2 people, including a woman, trying to negotiate the entire maze with the help of walkers. There were no ramps, no passages with enough width that could be negotiated by wheelchair users, and certainly no sensitized personnel to assist – people were refused wheelchairs despite asking for them. My parents, pushing 80 now, too had a bad time standing in the queue - my father's name didn't even figure in the voting list for some mysterious reason.
All this just goes to show that one shouldn't really rely on news reports and public-relation press releases - hell of a difference between the news reports and the situation on the ground to my chagrin. Good intentions gone bad due to poor execution or sheer apathy? I simply thanked heavens as I heaved a sigh of relief as I slumped down into my car having cast my vote and run what can, perhaps, best be described as a steeple chase. I didn’t quite wait to see how the voters walking with the help of walkers fared as I had to report to office.
20 years since the enactment of the disability act and 5 general elections later, the lack of sensitivity on the part of the Election Commission towards the impediments that the physically challenged face at the polling booths is nothing short of sheer disappointment, if not outright criminal - is it not the duty of the Election Commission to ensure that people with disabilities are able to exercise a right guaranteed by the constitution of India? When the election commission can ensure that the officials on election duty and the armed forces personnel can cast their vote, why is it that millions of people with disabilities either dare not venture out of their homes or return home without having cast their vote? Why is it that facilities for millions of physically challenged voters are still missing at the polling stations across the country or are only provided at the booths where celebrities come out in droves and present photo-opportunities? Why are the security and the election commission personnel not sensitized towards the needs of the physically challenged and why is it that no action is taken against them when they are found wanting in the discharge of their duties towards people with disabilities? Aren’t people with disabilities citizens of India? Don’t they have the right to vote? Why have all the human-rights activists gone to ground on this issue?
In an interview in 2004, I had asked Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi if people with disabilities had any place in 'Shining India'. If memory serves me right, he didn’t quite know how to respond and made the usual diplomatic noises. I guess ‘Incredible India’ in 2014, just as was the case with 'Shining India' in 2004, hardly has any place for the physically challenged in its scheme of things. Shame!
I voted for a change today – now to see if a more inclusive dawn is at hand.