Democracy, disciplined and enlightened is the finest thing in the world – Mahatma Gandhi
Nine years of field experience of the voter education programme, with acronym SVEEP, served as the ground work as we started the preparations for Lok Sabha Election 2019 – World’s largest election, be it the of size of electorate, the expanse, the variation in geographical terrain, the cultural diversity or the diversity of language.
To give a sense of scale of LS election 2019, its electorate stands at a mammoth 900 million, which constitutes around 69.2% of the Indian population, it covers the entire length and breadth of this vast country with area of 3.287 mn sq km. The Electoral Roll is prepared in 16 languages. On one hand we have the highest Polling station is Tashigang, situated at a height of 15,216 feet above sea level in Lahaul & Spiti, Himachal Pradesh while on the other there is the Dugong Creek Polling Station in Andaman & Nicobar Islands. While a Polling station is set up for upto 1200 electors in a rural area, Polling Station is also set up for a single voter in Gir National Park, Banej, Gujarat.
Reaching out to the last voter itself is a challenge, but the bigger challenge is providing the last voter with the requisite information so as to enable him/her to make an informed decision. SVEEP is all about Information, Motivation and Facilitation and voter awareness, is not extended just to the current electorate of 900 million, but also to the prospective Voters. Electoral Literacy Club project covers populace between 14-17 years old in Schools through ELC-Schools and those outside formal education system, through Chunav Pathshala.
Between LSE 2014 and LSE 2019, there were elections to the Assemblies of 27 States including the National Capital Territory of Delhi. These were periods of learning in all aspects of Election Management and particularly for SVEEP which had evolved as a programme only since 2010. Between the two national elections two landmark interventions were directed by the Commission. One was ‘Mainstreaming of Electoral Literacy through curricular and extra-curricular interventions’ and the second was ‘Accessible Elections’.
Mainstreaming Electoral Literacy-ELC Project
As per the observations, lowest Electoral participation is seen among the youth, particularly those in the age bracket of 18 to19 years, which is their first year of being eligible to apply for registration. Information gap among this segment is a major factor along with the lack of motivation factor as they are busier in choosing their career path and electoral participation is least of their concerns. Hence, the National Voters’ Day was dedicated to motivating these newly eligible voters.
After 5 years of discrete efforts at targeting the youth through various means, it was decided to evolve a more focussed, comprehensive approach, wherein the outreach would not be confined to election period or National Voter’s Day, but it will be a continuous process and aiming at wholesome electoral education vis-a-vis voter awareness.
The Commission sought some interventions in school curricula from the Ministry of HRD in 2015. Expecting any curricular revision to take time, parallely Commission directed for developing extra-curricular interventions for prospective or future voters. Target age-group was 14-17 years, so that when they are eligible to become electors, they would be aware of the process of elections and also about the values of electoral democracy.
The Electoral Literacy club project was thus conceptualised and by was launched on the 25th of January 2018 across the country. ELCs in schools and higher educational institutions, Chunav Pathshala in communities for those outside the formal education system was rolled out. Resources were developed on the principle of ‘learning by doing’ and activities were developed. Ahead of the Lok Sabha Election 2019, Commission directed for complete roll out of Chunav Pathshala at each booth. The aim being “Voter Education”, the concept is much different from the activities done for awareness. The activities are aims at detailed and longer engagement with citizens to their informed and sustained electoral participation. The activities are kept simple to enable any volunteer to coordinate the same with the help of resource books. Voter Awareness Forums have been set up in Organisations and Departments to cater to the organised workforce.
ELCs shall give rich dividends in years to come if they are nurtured in the same manner in which they have been conceptualised.
While provisions always existed in the Law, Conduct of Election Rules and various orders issued by Commission from time to time to facilitate Persons with Disabilities to exercise their franchise, detailed guidelines were for the first time issued in 2016 just preceding the enacting of ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.’ Accessible Elections’ was adopted as the theme for National Voters’ Day 2018 and the focus of the year 2018 was towards making elections as accessible as possible for all.
Consultations with stakeholders were held at District and later at State level. The National Consultation was a culmination of the consultations and had inputs from Political Parties, Stakeholders, CSOs and States.Based on the findings a comprehensive Action Plan was evolved for the Lok Sabha elections. The interventions included introduction of Braille EPIC, transport facility for PwD who need them, making voter awareness material and websites accessible besides utilizing technology to facilitate PwD voters.While there have been some remarkable steps taken at ground level by certain districts, in other places lots of challenges were faced. As the polling stations are already standing government buildings, many of them have accessibility issues. Making them completely accessible remains a challenge. Then there are issues of providing smooth access from the road upto the polling station. A solution was found in form of Volunteers to fill in any gap in infrastructure. While the endeavour is to provide a barrier free environment for Voters with disabilities to exercise their franchise, wherever these barriers are not surmountable immediately, help is provided to help them overcome the barrier.
Then there are issues regarding resource management. For example, while buying wheel chairs to provide facility at each polling station for elections, its utilization post elections has to be thought of. In some earlier cases, wheel chairs were procured ahead of elections by the election office and later given to either institutes for PwDs or to individual PwDs, as storage and maintenance till next elections was not possible. A more efficient way was found in recent elections , where some districts asked Panchayats to buy a wheel chair from their funds, and later use it in Panchayat Bhawan to facilitate PwD and senior citizens. Sensitization of polling and security personnel was flagged in preparations for National elections, as a major intervention and a simple session on sign language itself gave officials insights into the invisible challenges faced by the deaf community. Ahead of LSE 2019, Commission has issued strict directions on accessibility and also appointed Accessibility Observers. With the stakeholders too taken into confidence, there would be detailed information available with us post the elections on what can be further improved.
For the first time, a comprehensive national media campaign has been taken up. Broadly all major topics were covered and after discussions and deliberation the theme of ‘celebration’ or ‘Mahatyohar’ was chosen. Based on past years’ experience including the KAP survey, messages were created around the 12 identified topics. A separate campaign targeting Persons with Disabilities was also planned to be disseminated in accessible format to cover all disabilities.
National campaign aimed at supplementing the campaign by CEOs and DEOs. Some states translated the national campaign content in regional language and disseminated, while many others developed their own campaign content more relevant to the audience.
The national campaign is being run on national television channels besides Cinemas, besides on public broadcaster All India Radio and Doordarshan.
ECI forayed into social media in 2016, specifically for voter education. The experiment was slowly scaled up and in January 2018, ECI formally launched its official Facebook Page. A dedicated Twitter handle of the spokesperson to give updates to media already existed but otherwise there was no other presence on any other social media platforms. Ahead of Lok Sabha Election, the Commission decided to launch the Twitter handle and Instagram page specifically for voter education and outreach.
The essential components of the SVEEP program remain the same. Built around the principle of Information, Motivation and Facilitation, every possible connect with voters is utilized to give them information and to motivate them to vote. Facilitation is extended in every possible manner to make the process accessible and pleasant. EVM/VVPAT familiarization remains a major focus with the machines taken up through Vans for demonstration and hands on experience to cover all hamlets, booths and villages, besides colleges and organizations.
While Booth Level Officer is the last and the most vital connect of ECI at the Booth Level, both in rural and urban areas, it is the other government field level workers like ASHA, Aanganwadi worker, Preraks of National Literacy Mission, who remain the most effective partner in our connect with the people in villages. Civil Society and NGOs help ECI in reaching out to the niche audience. Volunteers from organizations like NCC, NYKS, NSS, Bharat Scouts & Guides help facilitate voters on poll day and also help election officials in voter awareness. Mobilisation activities close to poll day help amplify the message and multiply the reach. These are high visibility events like runs, human chains, competitions, rallies etc and are widely covered in media and help raise interest and awareness.
Celebrities are taken as Election Ambassadors and Icons to reach out to a wider audience. They have played an important role in motivating the people to associate with the electoral process.
Edited by Padma Angmo