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#Go Assist – Matdata Mitras in the Abode of the Clouds, empowering the youth powering the nation – Unleashing the Power of Poll Volunteers for Accessible Elections -By F R Kharkongor, CEO Meghalaya Matdata denotes an individual’s inalienable right to vote, and Mitra means friend. In Meghalaya this time, with the objective of ensuring that, “No Voter should truly be left behind” over and above other measures and initiatives, undertaken, hundreds of young and future voters were effectively mobilized as Election friends or Matdata Mitras, in the just concluded Lok Sabha Elections 2019, covering both the Shillong Parliamentary and Tura Parliamentary seats, spread over 3167 Polling Stations, across 60 Assembly Constituencies. Anchored on the firm belief, that it is critical to meaningfully engage the hearts and minds of impressionable young and future voters, a much larger dividend accrues from ensuring that, it is only by actually empowering the youth, that one can also tangibly power the nation. With this end in mind, to ensure the fulfilment of the 3E’s of Engage, Empower and Express, the initiative to involve, train and deploy the Matdata Mitras, became an article of faith for Meghalaya in the recently concluded LS 2019, in the context of Inclusive and Accessible Elections. The journey commenced a few months prior, to Lok Sabha Elections 2019, when the ECI sought specific inputs from the state, for developing suitable guidelines on the functioning of Poll Volunteers, which envisaged an enlargement and deepening of their role for LS 2019. Accordingly, building on the basic premise that “No voter should be left behind”, the role of the Poll Volunteer was gradually crafted and fashioned, aimed at meeting the objectives of inclusive and accessible elections. This initiative was gradually institutionalized by the ECI, as part of its general guidelines to achieve Assured Minimum Facilities (AMFs) in its entirety in a Polling Station, which act as a corner stone of electoral democracy. Through these assorted measures, the Poll Volunteer acquired a new centrality, on being listed as a mandatory AMF requirement, in Polling Stations, galvanizing Poll Volunteers to extend prompt and visible assistance for the broad swathe of voters, covering the hitherto marginalized and left out categories of People With Disabilities (PWD), the aged and infirmed. While making a Polling Station completely accessible, continues to be a challenge in hilly terrains like Meghalaya, faced with multiple difficulties, in ensuring smooth access for voters from road to Polling Stations due to rugged terrain. Also, in scenarios where ramps exist in Polling Stations perched on precarious hill tops, Poll Volunteers emerged as the ideal solution to surmounting these logistic and geographical barriers, with their ready presence, acting as a robust bridge and support to the aged and infirmed, ultimately making access of the marginalized to Polling Stations, both a doable and an achievable exercise. Preparations towards this end, started in right earnest, as the support of all key stakeholders was readily enlisted, drawing on members of leading Youth Organisations of the state, such as MBSG, NSS, NYK and also involving Ashas, Anganwadis and Community Resource & Rehabilitation Workers, in those locations, where a youth organisations presence was not pronounced. After a series of detailed deliberations, it was decided that the Scouts & Guides, would cover all Polling booth located in schools, both in rural and urban areas, the NSS meanwhile would expand its reach to all such PS located in colleges, and in urban pockets and in District HQs, whereas the NYK would cover Rural areas, and in locations and hamlets where its rural volunteers were functioning. This was followed by a State Level Workshop in collaboration with the Josh Talks Team of motivators and influencers. The training dwelled on aspects ranging from orientation about the constitutional and democratic rights, to accessible elections with a deep focus on a Poll Volunteers specific role, on how to be engaged meaningfully with the electoral process, The training also paved the way for sensitizing and orienteering the freshly minted volunteers to gain firsthand experience, exposure, besides offering a ring side view of the entire Polling and Electoral Canvas. Post training, and prior to their deployment as Poll Volunteer each volunteer, was provided colourful Poll Volunteer kits, comprising Election branded T-Shirts, Cap and poll volunteer paraphernalia to facilitate their visible and active presence and deployment in the field.. On Poll Day the Poll Volunteers truly lived up to their task, and were seen at many places actively assisting the PWD, the aged and infirmed in various Polling Stations. In some moving images, Poll Volunteers, stood proud testimony, to the ethos of compassion in action, carrying physically disabled voters, holding a senior citizens hand and escorting them to their respective Polling Stations, readily lending their shoulders to support the weak the old and the needy. The striking images of young shoulders and tender hands/eagerly and compassionately shouldering the tasks entrusted, remains etched indelibly in the public consciousness. Undoubtedly, the meaningful engagement of the Poll Volunteers this time, generated a substantial amount of goodwill amongst the voting community, at large, and particularly amongst the marginalized and peripheral voters, therefore, for whom Poll Volunteer’s involvement will be long remembered and cherished. Leading editors in their editorials lauded the maiden foray of Poll Volunteers in the election process on Poll Day. One of the editorials, even mentioned that “…..this is a major achievement in bringing inclusiveness in the way elections are conducted in the state…the support of volunteers like Scouts & Guides, NSS is a fresh initiative in making young people engage in democracy and have a firsthand experience in the electoral process…..with these measures the office has moved one step ahead, in making a point to ensure that differently abled people and senior citizen exercise their rights without any hassle by making the polling booth truly accessible to them”. In another editorial appearing in the state’s leading daily, it was mentioned by the state’s leading editor that “the ECI has done its job commendably surpassing past efforts, and actually turning the phrase “No voter to be left behind a reality……this time the CEO has pulled all the stops to enable physically disabled voter and the elderly cast their votes without hassle….boy scouts, girl guides and NSS volunteers were seen assisting voters and volunteering happily in all the activities”. The nascent promptings of this initiative has set a benchmark in electoral engagement of the youth, and is definitely going to have a positive ramification and a wider ripple effect, and perhaps herald a deeper and positive engagement of young people in all future elections. The authentic connect established is a manifestation of that trust, which in years ahead, is sure to further expand the narrative of inclusive democracy achieved through accessible elections. The legacy achieved undoubtedly is that of a Poll Volunteer’s indelible connect with democratic ethos and electoral democracy. Poll Volunteers collective involvement on poll day, in fact, contributed substantially to amplify the message of an increasingly inclusive and accessible election. These combined efforts will definitely fulfil the noble mandate of multiplying the electoral reach, to the unreached both in a physical tangible sense, and also in ways, that are intangible, sending out a loud message that there is an election machinery that cares about its young, its old and infirm and disabled that it is concerned for each and every voter, and that, truly every voter counts, to this effect the Poll Volunteer, has truly acted as a living bridge to democracy and in the process of being empowered, has also empowered the nation and, which in turn has enriched the entire inter play between the voter, the Poll Volunteer and the voting experience especially for the PwD aged and infirm. The involvement, meaningful engagement and services rendered by the Poll Volunteers was duly recognized and their engagement would be continued and sustained through the ECI’s democratic platform of Electoral Literacy Clubs and Chunav Pathshalas.