We need more than just polling booths, say rural voters in Jaisalmer

Barkat Ali at Khan Mohammad Ki Dhani, a small hamlet that is yet to get its own booth
There is no road to Chh Ki Dhani. No mobile phone connectivity for miles around. The place still doesn’t exist on Google Maps. A long dusty, bumpy track off major district road 103 leads to this hamlet of Muslims. An odd camel munching on acacia is the only sign of life till the habitation of 158 voters appears on the horizon. There is one primary school with 62 children, and one teacher who hails from Jaipur and curses her punishment posting. Electricity came here "2-3 years ago". There is no piped water supply. No primary health care centre. But this time Chh Ki Dhani — ward 80 A in official records — will have a polling booth of its own for the first time. Earlier, the inhabitants of this hamlet had just a couple of hours to cast their vote in the afternoon. This time, they can come out and vote like other people do — 8 am to 5 pm.

In its splendid isolation, Chh Ki Dhani is a unique hamlet in India — a celebration of Indian democracy and the Election Commission of India’s (ECI's) resolve to make every Indian vote. Till the last elections, a mobile Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) came to this hamlet for a few hours. Between 8 am and 1 pm, election officials used to conduct polls in Hamirnada — ward 80 — a half-hour drive from Chh Ki Dhani. After voting finished in Hamirnada, the entire election team packed their equipment and moved to Chh Ki Dhani. Here they would again set up the EVMs and voters of this hamlet would cast their vote. This time things will be different.

 The election officials will set up camp with their EVMs on December 5 — two days before the polling day in Rajasthan. The lone primary school in the hamlet is being decked up for the occasion. Narendra Kumar, a booth level officer, says he has arranged for furniture, reinforced electrical connections and called for a tanker of water to be stationed in the hamlet for election officials. "This hamlet is very remote. We have to ensure that polling officials feel comfortable when they spend the whole day here,” said Kumar.

Ismail Khan outside the polling booth in Chh Ki Dhani
Ismail Khan, a broad-shouldered man in his late 40s and a resident of the hamlet, says, “Some years ago, we had to go to Mohangarh, almost 30 km away, to cast our vote. We would put the entire hamlet on tractors and other vehicles to go to Mohangarh. Last time, we got a polling booth here.” Khan still doesn’t know what the fuss is about. “They got to vote in their hamlet last time and they will do it this time too. There are other pressing issues here,” he says.
“Our kids, if they have to study beyond Class V have to still go to Mohangarh. There is no public transport here so these children have to spend more time reaching school than attending it. There is no water supply, though a stream from the Indira Gandhi Canal runs through here which we use for our crops.” 

While the ECI’s decision to bring a polling booth to Chh Ki Dhani is commendable, there are issues surrounding safety of fragile Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail machines (VVPATs). These machines are commercial grade products manufactured by a military equipment maker (BEL) and highly vulnerable to malfunctioning if transported without precaution. Jaisalmer's district collector Om Kasera, one of the men instrumental in getting polling booths to remote hamlets, says, “There is a switch behind the VVPATs which alternates between two modes — working mode and transport mode. Strict instructions are in place to ensure that when VVPATs are in transit to places like Chh Ki Dhani, the switch should always be in transport mode. This time we will be ferrying our people and machines to such locations on 4X4 vehicles and not any other mode of transport to ensure everything runs smoothly.” 

While Chh Ki Dhani has its own set of challenges, the situation changes in other hamlets where mobile EVMs came till the last elections. There are three other habitations — Kayam Ki Dhani, around 140 km from Jaisalmer, Fakirwalo almost 500 km from Jaisalmer and 113RD almost a 100 km from the district headquarters — where mobile EVMs won’t be used this time. 
At 113 RD, a small hamlet of 449 voters, and nearby Sutharwala, things will be different this time. Till last year voting used to take place in the first half in 113 RD and then personnel and EVMs would be packed up to go to Sutharwala, a small village of few grocery stores, tractor mechanics and a vegetable shop, some 10 km away. This time, voters of Sutharwala have the option of either coming to vote a couple of kilometres down the road to the higher secondary school at Jawahar Nagar or proceed further to 113 RD to cast their vote.

Shiv Prakash, the headmaster of the school, says, “There was a polling booth in this school in 2013 also. But still the ECI took mobile EVMs to Sutharwala. This time, since VVPATs are also being used, those voters can come here.” 

Shiv Kumar, a booth level officer of 113 RD, says, “I have personally called up all the voters in Sutharwala and told them mobile EVMs won’t come there this time and they can come and vote either at Jawahar Nagar or 113 RD. All voters said they have no problem and will come to vote at 113 RD.” 

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