In 2017, when Chinese forces moved on the Doklam plateau, India moved close to 60,000 soldiers to China-India-Bhutan tri-junction on the Sikkim border leading to days of a standoff.
Between April 11 and May 19, India will be moving more than 2.5 lakh central forces personnel on over 25 helicopters, over 500 trains, 17,500 vehicles, hundreds of horses and mules and scores of boats and ships at a cost of more than Rs 200 crore. These are the logistics of organising and securing elections in the world’s largest democracy.
Getting 90 crore people to vote across 10 lakh booths in 543 seats spread over 33 lakh sq km takes months of planning, gathering of resources, meticulous coordination and exceptional management skills. Given India’s diversity, caste and communal fissures and threats from insurgency and terrorism, it is a huge logistical challenge.
In the last two months, three key players in poll management — the Home Ministry, the Election Commission and the Central Reserve Police Force — have sat in multiple meetings thrashing out the challenges, solutions and the final plan.
Who does what
The EC remains the supreme body organising the elections beginning from deciding the schedule to allocation of resources and coordinating civilian and uniformed manpower. The Home Ministry provides the security force companies in consultation with the EC and ties up with other ministries such as Railways and state governments for movement of forces. The CRPF is the nodal force coordinating deployment and movement of all forces on election duty.
“General elections entail a very large movement of central and state police forces. As per different requirements of different states in different phases, the movement of these forces is planned and it is as per the orders of the Election Commission and the Home Ministry. The movement entails arranging for trains, meals and accommodation of the jawans, their briefing and familiarisation of particular theatres. It is a very complex exercise and requires exactness and precision so that the forces are available at the right time and at the right place,” CRPF DG R R Bhatnagar told The Indian Express.
The EC has a secretariat headquartered in Delhi, but this set-up is not enough to conduct elections on this scale. The Constitution provides that the President or the Governor of a state is obliged to provide all “such staff as may be necessary” for the EC to conduct elections. The expression “such staff as may be necessary” was at the centre of controversy in 1993, before the Supreme Court decided that the EC and the government should jointly decide the staff and forces required for conduct of elections. Since then, it has always been done through mutual consultation.
Fixing the calendar
The first challenge is deciding the dates . “Every state has unique culture and religious practices. So, if you plan to hold elections in the Northeast on one date, you have to ensure there is no festival in any of the seven states on that date. And each state has different festivals. So the EC has very few dates to begin with,” said a senior CRPF officer who has been part of several poll meetings. An EC official agreed: “We have to avoid polling not only on festivals celebrated nationally like Holi, but also those celebrated regionally. For instance, in Assam we cannot have polling during Rongali Bihu,” an EC official said.
Drawing up a list of public holidays, therefore, is the first step. The EC also tries to keep regular religious practices in mind while narrowing down on dates. “Since the Northeast states have a significant population which goes to church every Sunday, we don’t keep polling on that day. Similarly, for Kerala, where a number of voters are Muslim, we avoid Fridays.”
The EC also factors in examination schedule and weather patterns. “For example, states that receive early monsoon rains like the Northeast have to wind up voting by April,” the EC officer added.
According to a former Chief Election Commissioner, the EC normally prepares a number of dummy calendars with different sets of dates. This is done to ensure secrecy. “We have to coordinate with agencies and state governments to execute this mammoth exercise and yet ensure the actual dates remain a secret. This is why we make arrangements in a way that will suit all dummy schedules. The final one can be selected by the EC shortly before announcement,” said an EC officer.
Forces on the move
Once the EC gives out a list of available dates, the Home Ministry and forces sit down to chart out the best possible schedule that will suit force movement. Depending on what forces can achieve with minimum movement and least use of resources, poll schedules are decided.
“Forces deployed in Tripura cannot move to Kanyakumari in the next phase. Distances matter. So schedules have to be worked out depending on availability of forces in nearby regions to ensure minimum movement. There has to be enough time between phases to ensure smooth movement and optimum rest,” said the officer.
Given that insurgency-hit areas will require fresh legs, districts affected by left-wing extremist violence and secessionist militancy in Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast will vote first. So will the Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands and the hills of Uttarakhand. “Difficult areas will require greater concentration of forces. Islands of Andaman and Lakshadweep require days of travel. Troops from Kolkata and Tamil Nadu move over three to four days in ships. Then all islands have to be covered in ferries and boats. In the hills, going up requires time. So, once they are done, movement of forces becomes smoother and faster,” another senior CRPF officer said.
For Chhattisgarh, even lunar cycles have been kept in mind while drawing up schedules. “In certain parts of Naxal-affected Chhattisgarh, we need forces to make movements in the night on foot. For that we need a moonrise between 5-7 pm, so that it sets early morning giving us a full moonlit night,” the officer said.
Schedules for the next few phases have also been decided based on availability and mobility of forces. Forces deployed in UP will move eastward laterally until the last phase of elections. In Bihar, forces will move from south to east and then laterally to west. This will help concentrate forces in the last two phase of elections in UP’s Purvanchal and West Bihar districts which have high population density.
The CRPF has worked out deployment to ensure that forces now in the Northeast will later move on to West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, and not any farther. The companies deployed in UP will be there through the entire schedule. Those in Andhra and Telangana will move to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the next few phases.
“In the last two elections, deployment has been worked out scientifically. For example, the units which secure polls on April 11 will get free only by April 13 to board a train and reach his destination on April 14. After some rest , they will be available for the next phase on April 18. But the third phase is on April 23, with little gap. So what we have deployed forces for the first three phases now itself. Barring a few states like UP, the forces deployed in the first phase will be moved to secure the fourth phase giving enough time for movement, rest and recuperation,” the CRPF officer said.
Forces on the ground
Time and energy are also consumed in arranging logistics such as accommodation and food for the forces. “The state government provides accommodation. But suppose it’s a school in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, we have to turn it into a fortified camp with morchas and sandbags,” a CRPF officer engaged in deployment said.
It’s also not enough to secure booths and accommodation. In areas such as Chhattisgarh and Odisha, even roads have to be secured. “Road opening parties would be needed for all movements in LWE areas. Beyond that we will need people to keep an eye on the roads. For that local units have sought civilian help and tied up with truck and bus drivers and regular commuters to alert us if anything amiss is noticed,” the officer said.
Every state has force coordinators and state police poll coordinators who take care of all the logistics as forces move from one place to another. Their job is humongous as they are not merely handling the 2.5 lakh central forces soldiers but also state police which is in comparable numbers and moving.
To ensure time is not wasted in cooking, CRPF has tied up with IRCTC to provide food for troops moving in trains. Earlier, trains would stop at stations and troops would cook on platforms throwing the entire deployment schedule haywire, said sources.
On the ground, things have to be dealt with at rather micro level. Every booth is a unique challenge requiring “anywhere between five to 100 men to secure them”. “We use institutional memory to deal with this. A mapping of all violence and troubles at booths has been done. A study of what solutions were worked out in the past and what were the results have been made. Based on this, deployment has been done and preventive measures taken,” said an officer.
Then there are booths where no roads reach. Both poll officials and troops have to reach these places on mules or on foot. “In Arunachal, there are booths where it takes three days of trekking to reach. Even booths which are accessible by choppers, have to be first secured by troops in case they fall in a trouble zone. So troops have to walk,” the officer said.