Of the nearly 11 lakh persons with disabilities (PwD), known as divyang, in Gujarat, over two-thirds are of voting age — 7.7 lakh who are 20 years old or more, besides the 18- and 19-year-olds among the rest. Gujarat has 4.21 crore voters aged at least 20, but the divyang among them number only 69,410, registered with the Election Commission until October 6. These will include some teens but even if all of them were counted in the 20-plus bracket, they would still represent less than a 10th of the 7.7 lakh total.
This constituency has become the focus of attention not only from the Election Commission, which is trying to convince divyang to shed their inhibitions if any, but also from parties, particularly the ruling BJP that has held programmes to provide assistance in various forms over the last one year.
Persons with disabilities include those with impaired sight, hearing, speech and movement, besides mental retardation and illness. Census 2011, which counted 10.9 lakh persons with disabilities in Gujarat, listed the highest segment in the age group 20-29 (1.78 lakh), followed by age group 30-39 (1.64 lakh) and 40-49 (1.35 lakh). Among the districts, Ahmedabad has more than 2 lakh people with disabilities, followed by Vadodara (85,797) and Surat (71,903).
Of the 69,410 PwD enrolled, only 17,937 have sought assistance from the EC for polling days. Assistance could be in form of wheelchairs or of someone to accompany them while voting.
“This is the first time we are trying to collect data of divyang voters,” B B Swain, chief electoral officer, Gujarat, told The Indian Express. “During door-to-door visits by booth-level officers, several voters might not wish to get enrolled as disabled. That could be one reason why the numbers do not reflect on the rolls.”
The EC is making an effort to route facilities to registered PwD voters during polling days on December 9 and 14. “Many of them are not aware about the various facilities and services provided by the EC for encouraging and facilitating their electoral participation. The primary goal is to increase inclusion by as many PwD as possible and encourage them to exercise their right to vote by making them aware about the facilities available and motivating them to be an integral part of the democratic fabric,” Swain said.
The BJP’s efforts in the last one year have included major events where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has distributed various aids and assisting devices among PWD. The biggest of four events was held on Modi’s birthday at Navsari, whee three Guinness world records are said to have been set: distribution of 1,000 hearing aids, 1,000 divyang on wheelchairs making a formation of “Happy Birthday PM” and 989 persons lighting earthen lamps within 30 seconds.
In Rajkot, Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot said his ministry had reached out to 7.5 lakh divyang through 5,500 camps in the last three years and distributed aids. “The BJP has always been working hard for divyang. Even though they form a small voter base, I see no harm in the party trying to maximise its voter base by wooing them. They too need respect and care and we are sensitive to their needs,” said Yamal Vyas, BJP spokesperson.
Kanu Shelar, president of The Society for Physically Handicapped, Ahmedabad (Thespha) an NGO working with orthopaedically disabled people since 1976, said, “About a month ago, we had made a representation before the EC requesting them to install ramps and provide wheelchairs at booths. This is essential as there are a sizeable number of disabled voters who usually find it difficult to approach the polling centres.”