The faith of Indians in democracy is seen at its peak when India votes in the General Elections . In the past month, as the election campaigns have reached their zeniths, in terms of their pitch, the 'Yes! I will vote' movement has also gained considerable popularity. And through both, individual election campaigns of the candidates and awareness generated through media, India wanted to - no, was looking forward to, casting its vote in the 5 phases of voting spanning across its boundaries.
In the first phases, encouraging voter turnouts as high as 85% in the North East propelled peoples' imaginations and everyone eagerly awaited the day when they could cast their vote, elect their leader and be a part of the system that forms our government.
Thick bunches of printed voter lists across election booths
But the reality of the system that actually allows citizens to cast their votes was rudely inept, inefficient and grossly mismanaged when 121 constituencies of India went for vote on April 17. Pune, a city known for its intellectuals and progressive thought, woke up and thousands of voters found themselves unable to participate in the Dance of Democracy. Citizens who carried valid voter IDs and who had voted in previous elections found themselves searching for their names in thick bunches of printed voter lists across election booths in Pune. The city that boasts of its Information Technology prowess, found that the search engine on the Election Commission website was defunct and so the only option was to physically stand outside the possible voting booth in the neighbourhood, brave the soaring temperatures, resist the frustration and search themselves in printed books listing the voters of Pune.
The heat of the moment is lost, so is the interest
In recent history, voter list chaos had reigned supreme during the 2012 Pune Municipal Elections too. As more voting booths were added, many voters had searched for the right voting booth the entire day and returned home without casting their vote, as names were not found (either missed out), or were buried in the humungous printed books called Voter Lists.
Post elections, the way voter lists are managed, maintained and circulated is discussed, particularly by losing candidates, and as the heat of the moment is lost, so is the interest, till the next elections. But the General Elections of 2014 and the chaos of the voter lists in Pune has thrown up some very interesting observations ,highlighting the inefficiencies of the way in which voter lists are maintained and managed.
1. Voter List consolidation, including adding new voters, deleting dead persons, deleting double names, changing addresses of voters, realigning voters into right constituencies etc, should be a continuous process. Does the Election Commission do this as a continuous process or is the system mobilized only pre elections? The pressure of pre elections consolidation is perhaps not making this a successful exercise.
2. When the voter lists are being consolidated, the data is not accessible to citizens on a platform that is suitably easy to navigate. This makes it difficult for people to check their names easily and thus the chaos on election day erupts.
3. The Search Engine on the Election Commission website is archaic. Further, it has misspelt many names and thus I cannot find myself as ANAGHA, but as ANGHA. So, the database is erroneous and needs immediate correction.
4. Systematic organization of Help Booths on election day is a mechanism that is completely missing. A two person team carrying a printed voter list sit outside every election booth. The only form of assistance that they can give is a sympathetic ear to the disgruntled voter who holds a election voter ID and yet is unable to find herself in the voter list.
Opportunity to revamp the mechanism of maintaining Voter database
It is unfortunate that thousands of Punekars amongst others could not exercise their right to vote in the General Elections of 2014. But instead of mere expression of regret, I thought, can we use this opportunity to revamp the mechanism of maintaining Voter database that is Smart and in tune with the IT revolution that India is leading?
1) Today, person databases are available in variety of formats that can actually assist in Voter List preparation and verification. Using technology to link databases like Bank Accounts, AAdhar Card or the UID to the Voter database can help make voter lists stronger and more reliable. Streamlining entry and exit procedures from the voter database is very important. Currently, the Form 6 for voter inclusion has been filled out numerous times by people and yet they don't figure in the voter list. So the entry into the voter list is posing to be a barrier. Further, an application for voter deletion (after death) requires a process which is rarely taken seriously by family members. Linkages to birth and death databases can help resolve this.
2) Second is, making the databases smart & secure that allow easy access and searchability. This database engine can be designed to allow printing of voting slips that readily gives information of the voter booth, making it easy for voters on voting day.
3) Third, is to bring in administrative and management discipline to the Voter List preparation process. An applicant should be able to see his/her name appear in the database 45 days from the application, thus ensuring inclusion and avoiding voting day chaos.
4) Fourth, is to put in place a 'Help Desk' system, where voters can direct their voting day queries and provide assistance on voting day. Further, this Help Desk can also address grievances and redress of complaints on voting day. The frustrations and the anger boils over when people find that there is no one whom they can turn to when things go wrong.
A missed opportunity
It was sadly a missed opportunity this year to achieve the highest percentage of voting, particularly in urban constituencies that record the lowest voter turnouts. The middle class was charged, the youth was mobilized and the citizens of this country were truly participating in democracy when the reality of inefficiency struck. What more can we say, but term it as another example of how bad administration, inefficient governance and mismanagement can hamper the aspirations of India's citizens.
The Author is an Architect-Environmental Planner, from India. She is alumni of Arizona State University, USA and has worked in USA and India in her 13 years of professional career. She heads a practice, VK:e environmental (www.vke-environmental.com), that consults in Environmental Design and teaches Masters Programs in Environmental Design & Planning. Through Sustainability Initiatives (www.sustainability-initiatives.org), a trust that focuses on urban policy research, Anagha is active in creating white papers on Indian cities, policies and frameworks that may influence urban policy in India. She serves on various committees on Sustainability issues, Environmental Planning and Green Buildings. She writes a blog (anaghaspeakes.blogspot.com) which focuses on urban issues faced in Indian cities.