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Thursday, April 22, 2004

The first phase of polling has come to an end. Times of India and other newspapers carried stories of voters being turned away from the polling booths though they had genuine photo identity cards. The people who could not vote are neither hard-core criminals in prison nor are they aliens from Mars. They are ordinary citizens of this country and yet they were denied their inalienable right to vote. The reason – their name did not figure in the voters list!

Unfortunately, nothing can be done at this late stage. The electoral rolls cannot be revised, nor can entries corrected or names included or deleted after the last day of nominations. In reality even before nominations, corrections in voter registers is a centralized, tortuous and inaccessible process.

This is not the first time that the irregularities have surfaced in the voters lists. For instance, a large sample survey (over 40,000 voters) by Lok Satta in Andhra Pradesh in 2000 showed an error margin of over 15 percent in voter registration in rural areas. Over 10 percent of the names have been wrongfully included (dead or fictitious persons, and those who no longer reside in the locality), and about 5 percent of the eligible persons have been excluded from the electoral rolls (persons attaining 18 years of age by January 1, or moved into the area). In urban areas, the picture is even more appalling; with 26 percent of the names wrongfully included, and 19 percent of the voters’ names excluded. Clearly, a system which allows such gross errors is less than adequate, and electoral verdicts are bound to be distorted. Especially when we consider that the average polling is about 60 percent, and the victory margins are usually around 5-10 percent, we can imagine the impact of irregularities in voter registration on the electoral verdicts.

Isn’t it a paradox that India, with our large pool of technical manpower and undoubted competence in IT enabled services finds it difficult to properly enumerate the voters? And can we address this situation? Yes, there is no rocket science involved and there are simple answers. The current voter registration procedures have a major flaw – it is the governmental machinery that sets the time and place of registration. The citizen cannot initiate the voter registration process, and people have no knowledge of procedures or easy access to voter lists. A distinguished scientist and Padma awardee cancelled his trip to Bangalore only to vote on 20th in Hyderabad. Yet he had a herculian task of finding out whether he was enrolled as a voter, and where he should vote! And he too had the voter identity card. We can then imagine the plight of an ordinary villager!

If Ramayya, a farm worker wants to know whether his name is enrolled, and if not, he wishes to register as a voter, he has to go through the following steps: go to Tehsil / Mandal office 25 km away from home; seek information about the part number (of his polling station), fee to be paid, and the head of  account to which it should be remitted; go to the nearest sub treasury (old taluk town) and pay the amount by challan; go back to his Mandal office and ask for voters list; verify the name;  if it is not included, ask for two copies of form 6; apply in duplicate; wait for the electoral registration officer (ERO) to publish it in the notice board calling for objections; ERO will then hear objections if any and include the name if all is in order. Even a cursory glance at these procedures makes one breathless! And Ramayya cannot apply for inclusion of others’ names. They all must individually submit applications! No wonder, voter registration is in a mess. If fact, it is a miracle that so many of us are able to vote!

What is the answer? No matter how hard the election bureaucracy works, there is no way they can make voter registration free from appalling errors. We need to involve citizens on a permanent basis. Make voter registration accessible, simple, transparent, citizen-friendly, and fair. Make the neighborhood post office the nodal agency for voter registration.

We have about 250,000 post offices all over India, which function efficiently and are easily accessible. Moreover Post Office is the only public institution which is approached by ordinary citizens without fear or anxiety!  If voter rolls are available locally for perusal or purchase, and the post office is made the nodal agency for voter registration and correction of defects, there will be a dramatic improvement.

Using post offices for voter registration is not something that is radically new. It is a time-tested model. For example, in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Hongkong, the post office is effectively used for voter registration. Even in Kerala the postal network was used for verification of electoral rolls and it met with great success.

If the answer is simple, why can’t we change things? For five years Lok Satta has been urging the Election Commission (EC) and postal authorities to act. After mountains of paper work, the EC and postal officials were convinced. But the matter was stalled for long because they were both deciding who should write to whom first! Finally, Mr Arun Shourie, the minister incharge of posts intervened, and both met. They decided in principle to make post office the nodal agency for voter registration. But this is yet to be implemented. Meanwhile, all this pressure led to some improvements. The EC directed that voter lists should be read out in gram sabhas and ward sabhas, and applications collected locally. In AP, nearly 6.4 million names were deleted from the rolls, and 3.4 new applications were rejected as the voter percentage was higher than eligible population. But such mass deletion is bound to lead to gross errors.

This latest voting fiasco is an opportunity for all of us to understand what is wrong and how to set it right. We need to assert collectively. The EC and postal authorities must be made to act, and swiftly.