Unsung heroes: West Bengal poll staff who ‘risk’ their life for duty

Speaking to The Indian Express, several poll officials recounted the circumstances under which they have been working since the polling began last month, with many claiming that the work often puts their “lives at risk”.

Written by Arshad Ali | Kolkata | Updated: April 28, 2016 7:42:09 am
west bengal elections, west bengal elections 2016, poll staff, political unrest in bengal, indian express kolkata A reliever polling agent at a booth in Salt Lake, Bidhannagar, where elections took place on Monday. Archive photo

Officials engaged with the ongoing assembly election have been carrying out their duties under sweltering heat and with “bare minimum facilities” amid looming “threat” from workers of nearly all political parties.

Speaking to The Indian Express, several poll officials recounted the circumstances under which they have been working since the polling began last month, with many claiming that the work often puts their “lives at risk”.

“The security provided by the central or state police forces exists only during the day. As soon as we deposit the EVMs (electronic voting machines), we are on our own. The government, at most, arranges for a vehicle that drops us to the railway station where we often end up spending the night since no trains are available at such late hours,” said Swapan Kumar Biswas, an employee of the customs department who oversaw polling at one of the booths in Entally constituency on April 2.

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Biswas, like many others, was alluding to threats from workers since “our work involves taking several steps against the interest of political parties”.

“I feel the government could provide us with adequate security until we have reached our home safe,” he said.

Aside from the “threats”, officials complain about the lack of basic facilities such as fans and tube lights and clean washrooms.

“The washrooms at most of the places where we are posted are in such bad condition that we avoid eating food altogether. I didn’t eat for two days and lived only on puffed rice and some biscuits,” said Partha Sarathi Das, an employee of National Sample Survey Office who was the micro observer at Sandeshkhali in North-24 Parganas where polling took place on April 25.

Govinda Purkait, the presiding officer at a booth inside Gypsy Mission School in South Kolkata for the polling on April 21, said the booth did not even have a fan when he took charge there. “The temperature outside was crossing 40 degrees. When I reported it, a huge pedestal fan was brought in but it had no regulator. It kept lying in one corner of the room for the entire time I was there,” he said.

Manir Hossain, a teacher with a government school, said he had arrived at the booth in Rajarhat on April 24 and had to spend the night there but couldn’t sleep because of the mosquitoes.

Another micro observer, posted at Khandaghosh in Burdwan district, said on the condition of anonymity that there was only a “60 Watt bulb inside the polling station” with no basic facilities. “We were afraid even to ask people for food and water as that could be considered as taking favours from political parties,” he said. The observer also said workers of some political parties had alluded to rigging the polls. “If we intervene, we put our lives at risk; if we don’t, we are showcaused by the Election Commission,” he added.

The Election Commission, which has come under the attack from several quarters over the violence during the polling, offers little help to the officials in charge of overseeing the polling. “It is not possible for us to provide round the clock security to all of them,” said Dibyendu Sarkar, additional Chief Electoral Officer.

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