While half of Mumbai stayed back as the country voted to elect the new Lok Sabha, many who cared to step out to cast their ballot were turned away. ZEESHAN SHAIKH and SHALINI NAIR probe whether a staggering one lakh voters’ names were struck off due to an overzealous clean-up drive by an understaffed Election Commission, or due to political machinations as alleged by a few, or due to plain inefficiency of a procedure designed to fail.
Democracy doesn’t work unless you participate,” American President Franklyn D Roosevelt once said. Rajesh Shirke, a resident of the straggly chawls of the Marathi manoos heartland of Parel, may never have heard about Roosevelt but the sexagenarian surprisingly echoes the opinion voiced by the four-time US president.
Shirke is one amongst the countless Mumbaikars who, despite having voted earlier, were not allowed to cast their ballot in the just-held Lok Sabha elections in the city.
“I have been voting in all the elections ever since I can recollect. This time, I was told my name was not on their electoral roll. I have been staying in the same house for the past three decades. How can my name be struck off even as my entire family is allowed to vote?” Shirke said.
Mumbai, the sprawling megapolis with a population of 1.24 crore, presently has 98.97 lakh registered voters. The overzealous clean-up exercise conducted over the last two years, which resulted in 14.06 lakh names being deleted, has left lakhs of voters fuming. There are of course genuine cases where names have been struck off due to the voters having shifted out of their previous place of residence, due to death or similar reasons. However on the polling day, first in Pune on April 17 and then in Mumbai and Thane on April 24, lakhs of voters were flummoxed when they found their names were not there on the electoral rolls.
Sins of omission or commission ?
Residents in Bandra’s Perry Cross road, Shirley Rajan road and St. Martin’s road found names from individual buildings missing from the list while residents’ associations from Bandra, Khar and Santacruz complained about whole bunch of voters from entire lanes having vanished. Families that have been voting for generations in the slum belt of Dharavi suddenly found the right denied to them while names of dead people mysteriously stayed on in the electoral list at tony Cuffe Parade. First-time voters who patiently spent hours in order to get their voting card made so as to be part of the democratic process, had to return disappointed as their names were either misspelt or age incorrectly registered.
In addition to the large numbers of deletions, there were cases where the failure of the Election Commission to publish the voters’ list alphabetically or building-wise resulted in scores of voters spending hours scooting from one polling booth to another. Some found their names at last, others returned home, deterred by the prospect of scanning for their names under the scorching sun.
Names of voters are deleted in case of death, change of residence, disqualification or repeated entries at two different places. The Election Commission has a detailed process that needs to be followed before any individual is denied the chance to vote (in box). In any case, before striking off the names following a physical verification by officials, the persons concerned have to be intimated, either by publishing their names in a local daily or pasting a notice on their last-known addresses in the presence of two witnesses. However, many of those who found their names struck off claim they were given no intimation. “I could not vote as my name was not present in the list, nor did I ever get a notice warning me that my name will be taken off. I have been living here since I was born,” says Vijay Thakur, a policemen residing in GTB Nagar.
Kirit Somaiya, the BJP candidate from Mumbai North East, has even filed a criminal complaint against the chief election officer and the district collector. “No names can be deleted suo motu, without giving ample public notice and conducting a hearing. But in this massive deletion drive, lakhs of names have been taken off unilaterally and haphazardly,” Somaiya says, adding that booth-level officials who are supposed to do the panchnama (physical verification) have bypassed the time-consuming procedure and callously taken off names. Alleging that the deletions are a conspiracy by the ruling party, Somaiya says, “Maximum names have been deleted from the Assembly constituencies of Ghatkopar east and west, Mulund and Bhandup, while fewer names have been removed from Mankurd-Shivaji Nagar and Vikhroli.”
The EC website shows that 15,000 to 24,000 names have been deleted from the largely Congress vote base in the slums of Mankhurd and Vikhroli while there are 40,000 deletions on an average in the other four Assembly segments with a predominantly middle-class Gujarati population.
The Aam Aadmi Party, whose candidate for the seat, activist Medha Patkar, has a mass voter base in the slums, has alleged political interference in the mass deletions from Mankhurd.
State BJP president Devendra Fadnavis even went to the extent of alleging that the Hyderabad-based private agency that handles the software for the Election Commission has added or deleted names for money. Breaking up the numbers according to Assembly seats fails to substantiate any such claims of possible manipulation by the state government. It, however, throws up the glaringly flawed methodology and the rudimentary process that is followed while revising the rolls.
The sweeping clean-up drive
Mumbai’s population, as per 2011 census, has gone up from 1.19 crore in 2001 to 1.24 crore in the decade. This may seem as a very slow growth of population for the financial capital of the country, especially one that sees massive influx of migrants coming in search of jobs. However, owing to space and affordability constraints within city limits, many have also moved out of Mumbai to satellite townships. This has made the drafting of the electoral roll, which allows one to vote, a hugely challenging exercise.
The Election Commission, as per its existing rules, revises its electoral rolls every year. This is generally referred to as summary revisions in which the existing roll is published in drafts, inviting claims and objections. Names of people who approach the Commission officials are added and deleted in this process after due verification. A year before major elections, the EC also carries out an intensive revision of its rolls. The process is said to be done without relying on the existing electoral rolls. Here, enumerators go from house to house in search of voters residing in these areas. The exercise entails capturing the details of all those who are eligible for voting. Those who cannot prove they stay at a particular address find their names being struck off the voting list when the final rolls are published.
This process has been the most contentious with people claiming that enumerators have not taken down their details properly or have hurriedly done a shoddy job leading to names going missing or wrong details getting filled up. Interestingly, almost 15 per cent of the total electorate that was listed in the 2009 elections saw their names being struck off in the recently created electoral list by the Election Commission. In 2009 elections, there were a total of 95.74 lakh voters in the city, of which the names of 14.06 lakh was removed by the Election Commission.
The EC does not have dedicated staff for this tedious exercise and enrolls state government officials, including teachers, as footsoldiers. Voters complain that due to the lack of specialised handling of the process, there is a degree of disinterest and arbitrariness in the process. Professor Jitendra Shah, a former faculty member of VJTI college and former IT consultant for the state government, says that considering the colossal scale of the deletion exercise, physical verification should be used only after all other methods using data-bases has been exhausted. “Instead of doing so much manual work, they should simply use their readily-available resources and databases intelligently,” he says, adding that the KYC (know your customer) data of banks, data from mobile service providers and Aadhaar card should be tapped for verification purposes. In case of deletions due to deaths, computerised data is already available with the BMC. “All they have to do is send their list to the BMC for cross-verification. Similarly, instead of wasting time and manpower in going door-to-door, they should make it mandatory for housing societies and slum co-operatives to provide a list of their members. The names that are not found in any of the above databases can then be verified physically,” says Shah, who has also devised a system whereby the problem of names being untraceable on the election commissioner’s online database due to misspelling or mispronunciation can be overcome simply by typing it both in English and Devnagari scripts. After having made several representations on the matter to the state government over the past years, Shah is now helping the AAP take legal recourse to plug the loopholes.
EC officials, however, point out that all due processes were followed in cleaning up the list.”There is very little scope of error in drafting the rolls, which were circulated as per the requirement to political parties. We had even asked people to check their names on the list,” says Mumbai City Collector Shaila A.
EC officials also say that in spite of the numerous drives launched by them to create awareness, people have failed to pay heed to the basic advice of checking voters list and the EC website. Under existing rules, the exclusion or inclusion of any name from an electoral roll without a valid reason is a punishable offence with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three months but which may extend to two years.
“We have followed the due process in making the list. As of now, nothing can be done for those who missed out. We will start a new enrollment exercise across the state from May 20. All those who have been left out can enroll themselves in this drive,” Chief Electoral Officer Nitin Gadre said.
However, for Zain-ul-Abideen, a 28-year-old engineer and resident of Quraish Nagar in Kurla, the chance to make himself heard through the ballot box as the country elects its union government is a opportunity he won’t get for another five years. “There is a need to bring in some administrative and management discipline into how these lists are drafted. I am told that enumerators come to our house to enroll the names and verify details. In my case, I can vouch this never happened.”
Process for deletion of names
Names of voters can be deleted in case of death, shifting, missing voters, disqualification or repeated entries.
Death: In case of death, a death certificate has to be procured from the nearest relative or neighbour before striking off the name.
Shifting: A hearing is mandatory before deleting the name. If the person has shifted to the same area, the Electoral Registration Officers (ERO) can conduct a hearing. If he has moved to some other area, the ERO from that area has to send a recorded statement. The name can be deleted from the previous address only when the name has been found enrolled at the new address.
Missing: If the new address is not known, a notice of hearing to be published in a local daily and also pasted on the last-known address of the elector in presence of two witnessess.
Disqualification: In case a voter is found to be underage, a hearing has to be held. The person has to provide documentary evidence that establishes his age.
Repeated entries: Name to be retained only in the place the person is residing at present and deleted from the other one. The voter should be intimated of the same.