For a month now, Uttarakhand has been at work to ensure that 32 lakh people in its 803 snow-hit polling booths can vote on February 15. Starting today, polling officials will get their final directions and set off for their poll booths. From mules to helicopters, gloves to sleeping bags, boots to booths, ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ tracks a snow ballot. Photographs by ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ
Ashish Pant cannot believe that a goat got 40 times and a mule 90 times more travel allowance than he, a polling officer, for conducting elections in among the most difficult zones of the country. During the June 2014 panchayat polls, Pant, an assistant teacher with a primary school in Pithoragarh district, had climbed up a mountain with a polling party for four days and over 50 km to reach a booth in Go village, along the Indo-Tibet border in Darma valley of the upper Himalayas. While he was entitled to Rs 250 per day and 100 paise per kilometre that he walked, as per rates set by the district administration, a goat got Rs 40 per km, and additional Rs 50 for a night halt. A mule was entitled to Rs 90 per km, with Rs 300 for every night halt, for transporting poll material like EVMs.
Poll officers can’t remember when the rates were last revised.
But, there is one crucial difference from the 2014 panchayat polls. Those were held in June, a summer month. Like other high-altitude points in Uttarakhand, Pithoragarh is now covered in snow, making the foot journey to remote booths even more strenuous. In the 2012 Assembly polls, held on January 30, the Election Commission had classified 2,307 of Uttarakhand’s 9,806 booths as “long-distance booths having foot journey”. Of these, 119 booths required trekking of more than 10 km, while the farthest was a booth in Champawat district, with a total of 73 voters, up a steep walk of 32 km. Almost all these booths were on snow-bound slopes.
This year, the Election Commission estimates that as many as 803 polling booths and 212 roads in 35 of the 70 constituencies of Uttarakhand would remain “affected by snow” on February 15, voting day. The Eskimos are said to have some 100 words for snow. Uttarakhand tribes also have quite a few. Polling officers in the state, however, associate snow now with just one word — “ati durgam”, or very tough. While election officials in other parts of the country also deal with “sensitive” booths, as Uttarakhand Chief Electoral Officer Radha Raturi notes, “Our fight is against nature.”
Though preparations begin once the polls are announced, since the election exercise is covered in secrecy, polling parties find out about the booths assigned to them just a few days before they leave. This time elections were announced on January 4, and it is only now that poll officials are setting off for their booths with EVMs. Each polling party, comprising four election officials apart from security personnel, is mostly assigned one EVM, with an extra machine for distant booths.
Lalit Basera, an assistant teacher from Pithoragarh, says they are conscious at all times that in the 2-3-kg machine, they hold the future of the state in their hands. “Jaan se bhi zyada fikra rehti hai EVM ki (We value the EVMs more than our lives),” says Basera, who is in his thirties.
*****On January 27, government employees from across Pithoragarh have assembled at the Collectorate for election training and preparations. It is here that they learn, bemused, about the government allocation for them, and for the goats and mules in comparison. District magistrates, who are also the District Election Officers (DEOs), talk about providing snow goggles and snow cutters. The Election Commission (EC) had earlier estimated a requirement of 5,302 sleeping bags, and an equal number of snow boots and jackets for polling officers and security personnel. These were to be taken from the district administration, or borrowed from forces such as the ITBP and BSF.
During a January press conference in Dehradun, Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi had underlined a ‘Disaster Recovery Plan’ to ensure the safe journey of poll parties.
Little of this is visible as polling officials pack their bedding, woollens, basic edibles and other material here, like at other training centres across the state. Polling parties are dispatched from such district headquarters to base points, where patwaris — government employees who maintain land records — receive them. At base points, from where the trek begins, patwaris arrange local porters with mules and goats to carry the polling material.
However, says Lalit Basera, it is easier said than done. “We climb with at least 40-50 kg on our shoulders. If we hire mules, we pay them on our own.” “Snow goggles? Sleeping bags? What are these?” laughs Sanjay Upreti, an assistant teacher from Dharchula. “In the 2014 panchayat polls, I went to Gangolihaat and we cooked our own food.” Villagers are generally supposed to cook for the polling officials, but that time, they did not. Most booths are set up in schools, and election officials generally stay on the premises. Sometimes though villagers let them stay in their homes.
“Mules etc are decided at the district level. But people on poll duty are well-versed with topography, and prefer taking their belongings with them. If somebody makes any specific demand, we fulfill that,” asserts Nitin Upadhyaya, Uttarakhand’s Deputy Director of Information on Election Duty. Each polling team is also assigned a first-aid box. It has some tablets for fever, stomach pain, burns etc, but no oxygen masks or special medicines to fight cold, frost etc.
No medical check-up is done of the officials, who are shortlisted months before the election notification, as they begin their ascent. Every government department in the district sends a list of its employees to the DEO, with 58 being the upper age limit for poll duty. The polling parties are drawn by a software from the lists. If a polling officer says he has some health problems, diabetes etc, the DEO does not relent easily. Offices of DEOs are full of applications seeking exemption on health grounds.
Senior officers talk of having provided special snow training to the polling parties, which they deny. The two rounds of training they have received so far comprised primers on the importance of elections, how to handle EVMs, filling of voter forms, and maintaining secrecy. At the ati durgam booths especially, great emphasis is placed on mock polls, as voters here do not have much exposure to the electoral process. Villagers learn that they must choose by pressing a button, even how to press the button.
Presiding Officer Rajesh Mohan Upreti says they hold the mock poll the evening before and early morning of voting day. This year, the EC has announced 50 mock votes before actual polling. Apart from the ‘ati durgam’ booths, Uttarakhand has “Shadow Booths”, located in the upper hills without any means of communication. Uttarkashi has 52 of them. A slight delay in communication from the top makes many nervous at the district level below. SP Dadan Pal says they would give wireless sets to their poll parties, connecting them to 13 base camps.
As he gets ready to set off for an ati-durgam booth, an officer chuckles that their best reinforcement on most days is a bottle of Old Monk rum. However, a single gulp at high altitude, with low air pressure and oxygen supply, can be hazardous.
Rajesh Mohan Upreti can’t forget the night of January 27, 2012, when he, as presiding officer, was on his way to a booth. They were a batch of seven-eight setting up the first-ever poll booth for the 280-odd residents of Sumdum, the last village before the China border, who would have to travel 8 km down to vote.
Upreti’s team could not reach the destination before sunset. It was dark, and yet, Upreti recalls, “The gleam of the snow almost blinded us.” Around 7 pm, as they made their way through the shadows cast by the towering pine and deodar trees, the roar of a bear broke the mountain silence. The ITBP guard accompanying the poll team spotted fresh pug marks as well as a blood trail. Upreti remembers the police and ITBP personnel were not carrying any weapon. “We were told about elaborate planning. Was this planning? Even the forces had no weapon!” he says.
At the same time, Upreti, 48, smiles, it was “among my most memorable experiences”. In the 2002 Assembly polls, two officials had died in Uttarkashi district when they slipped down a frozen valley. Given the distance, and the exigencies they may face, polling teams start for their booths a few days in advance. If they must halt, they stop at a village. Of the 502 booths in Uttarkashi district, 318 will be affected by snow this time, the most of any district. These booths are spread over just three constituencies, incidentally No.s 1, 2, 3 of the state, Purola, Yamunotri and Gangotri respectively.
Uttarkashi District Magistrate Ashish Kumar Srivastava, who is presiding over his first elections, has inspected around 30 booths personally with Superintendent of Police Dadan Pal. Srivastava has promised an “alaav (fire place)” and school cooks to make food at every poll booth. “We have requested the ITBP and Army to provide us snow boots, snow goggles and sleeping bags. ITBP personnel will accompany the parties,” says Srivastava, who has kept 52 poll parties in reserve, for any eventuality, besides the 502 designated for the booths.
Since Uttarakhand shares a long border with Tibet, the ITBP is a permanent presence in the state. In Chamoli district, which has the third highest number of snow-affected booths (70), ITBP Sub-Inspector Anuj Bhatnagar is thrilled about the elections. Some of them have performed poll duties in Kashmir, but it would be their first experience in Uttarakhand, he says.
Pithoragarh DM Ranjeet Sinha says that besides the ITBP and Sashastra Seema Bal, which is also deployed on the border, the Army might also be called in if needed. Policemen at Joshimath, 6,150 feet high, say that they will hire horses to reach booths at altitudes even higher, while helicopters might be used to dispatch parties. However, few polling officials believe that will happen. In 2012, Rajesh Upreti remembers, “We did not have snow boots and our normal shoes gave away by the time we reached the booth.” Others say that helicopters only drop them to the spot, they make the return journey on their own.
“Gavahi ke baad gavaah, shadi ho jane ke baad baraati, aur chunaav ke baad adhikari (A witness after he has deposed, a guest after a wedding, and the polling officer after voting)… once the task is done, they are all forgotten,” laughs a teacher. The locals, used to the hills and the climbs, brush away the apprehensions of some of their colleagues. Says Chakrata’s Patwari Umesh Chand Pant, “12-13 km walk? So what?”A patwari, earning around Rs 30,000 a month, is perhaps the most important, but rarely acknowledged, component of any election. He makes repeated surveys of a booth site, speaks to local villagers and makes arrangements to set up the booth along with Booth Level Officers (BLOs), often local teachers.
A booth eventually is just a tiny enclosure with an EVM and made of cardboard or a piece of cloth, held together often with cellophane tape and pitched on four poles. It is this cardboard or cloth that ensures the secrecy of a ballot — the very essence of free and fair polling.
Pant, 58, has nine booths under him. “Pehle gatte milte the, ab kabhi chaadar bhi mil jati hai (Earlier we used to get only cardboard, now sometimes we get cloth sheets),” he says. Pant says he has made four rounds of the booths, each time climbing up some 50 km. He doesn’t need a mule or goat, he adds. “I carry the bedsheets on my own. What do I need a mule for?” Since this area is under Pant’s jurisdiction, he does not get any special allowance for the elections. Sometimes, when the booth material does not arrive from the district administration or is inadequate, he makes local purchases for around Rs 50.
Uttarakhand has often debated whether January-February, when it snows heavily in the state, is the best time to conduct polls. Two of the three Assembly elections it has seen so far have been held in February, and one in January. State leaders have often demanded that polls be delayed. PCC chief Kishore Upadhyaya wanted the elections to be held in March this year. This year, the EC, in consultation with the Met department, fixed polling day for February 15, which is expected to see clear skies across most of Uttarakhand.
Apart from the snow, a ground-bound hurdle is keeping election officials on edge. Like last year, Maoist slogans have surfaced urging people to boycott the polls. The CPI (Maoist) once had a zonal committee comprising Northern UP and Uttarakhand, but it has not recorded any activity in years. Geeta Rana admits she was surprised one morning to see one such slogan urging them to protect their “jal, jungle and jameen (water, forests and land)” and join the “chhaapaamaar sena (guerrilla army)”. “Boys from our area often go to the Army. At first I thought, it was a call by the Army,” says Rana, of Dwarsu village, some 15 km from Ranikhet. “Do you know who they (the guerrilla army) are?” “The district administration and police are on alert. But these elements won’t be able to affect the polls,” says Nitin Upadhyaya.
Sometimes, a hand-pulled trolley across a river works as a bridge, connecting villages with roads. Such villages in districts such as Pithoragarh and Uttarkashi have threatened to boycott the elections. Among them is Syalna village in Yamunotri, which in 2014 stayed away from the Lok Sabha elections. Recently, Chief Development Officer Uday Singh Rana climbed up 7 km to persuade them to vote. “We have told such villages that if they vote 100 per cent, their problems would be resolved on priority,” says Uttarkashi DM Srivastava. The administration has also employed “Matdata Didis (Mandate Helpers)”, on the lines of healthcare workers, selected from the community. At booths where women polling percentage was less last time, these didis are encouraging people to vote.
Besides, Uttarkashi district has launched Sameeksha, the first such smartphone app in the country linking the entire polling process to district headquarters. This app will keep the EC updated on the status of polling at all times. In Parsari village of Chamoli district, Bhagirathi Devi lives with her son’s family in a small home perched on a slope, overlooking a mountain range called, due to its peculiar shape, ‘Sleeping Lady’ or ‘Rani Pahad’ by the locals. Her son Murli Singh Bisht, a member of the 24 Assam Rifles battalion of the Army, died in an IED blast in Assam three years ago. The coffin arrived a few days later draped in the Tricolour.
She has kept the flag. “They asked me to…,” she forgets what exactly they told her about the flag, and turns to her grandson for help. Anurodh Singh, a Class XI student, finishes her sentence, “Hoist it on January 26 and August 15.” Anurodh steps inside to fetch the flag kept in a box. As she smooths the creases along the fold, Bhagirathi keeps breaking down. “My son is gone. I will vote for the person who gives jobs to my grandsons,” she finally manages to say. The younger grandson Ayush, who is not at home, is in Class IX.
Anurodh tries to take the flag from her, but she wants to hold on to it a little longer. Off and on, the 17-year-old takes his cellphone out of his pocket to check for signal. But it has recently snowed and there are no phone signals. On the cracked screen of his cellphone is a photograph of a girl from his school. She is in Class VIII, he says, with a shy smile.
Voters such as them rarely see their candidates. The topography ensures that candidates in many parts of Uttarakhand almost never cover their constituencies in full. “Not me though,” smiles Jay Prakash Ghaluan. “I am young, I have already covered over 70 per cent of the area.” The 33-year-old, a candidate of the Sarv Vikas Party from Yamunotri constituency, is campaigning near Radi Top, at a height of 6,500 feet,10 days to polling. “It’s very difficult to reach these villages, lekin vote lena hai to jaana hi hoga (if one wants votes, one must go),” he adds.
Ghaluan’s symbol is chaarpai (cot). “Jismen baithenge charon bhai, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isaai (All four brothers can sit on it. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians),” he explains. His small regional party has little chance though against the two major parties, the Congress and BJP. Around 50 km away, a few children are enjoying the rain, oblivious to the icy cold sleet, at a school in Janaki Chatti village, the base station of the Yamunotri shrine. It snowed through the night but the morning shower has melted it away, prompting the children to come out.
This year, this is the last booth in Uttarakhand, before the China border.
*****The snow at Janaki Chatti though is no match to what Virendra Rawat lives with on the Himalayas, at the toe of Mount Kalind and Yamunotri glacier. Once a resident of Janaki Chatti who took pilgrims up 6 km to the Yamunotri shrine on mules, he shifted to the shrine a year ago and is now the youngest disciple here. There are six sadhus in all at the shrine, and from November onwards, they start collecting rations to last them through the next six cold months.
On the morning of February 5, with the puja over, Rawat is pouring hot water on a Tata Sky dish that has developed a snag following the snowstorm that delivered 2 feet of snow. At 10,800 feet, all eyes are fixed on the temple’s sole television set. The head priest, Ram Bharose Das, who claims to have not crossed the bridge adjoining the temple in several decades, is keen to know about the election prospects of parties.
Rawat as well as another sadhu, Kesar Singh Rawat, also a resident of Janaki Chatti, say that irrespective of the snow, they will go down 6 km to vote. Voter I-cards, made years ago, are their last remaining links to the world.
Come February 15, they may be the remotest voters, in the Himalayas, that the EC will reach.