India is not the world’s smartest democracy. It is merely the largest. Size can dwarf sense, which in turn makes us focus on scale and miss the real problem: India is stuck. The soul of our democracy, as the Election Commission points out, is the conduct of elections. True.
It is also the biggest nightmare of our democracy. The logistics and management become knottier by the election, partly because we don’t change. We are on our way to Mars but we still find it tough to go beyond the physical structure of a polling station.
This has implications. An election in India is not just about a vote. It involves people who logically shouldn’t be within a mile of a vote.
We need central armed police forces and the state police because polling stations are classified by risk – what they call the vulnerable factor. The feet on the ground cost money, and they come after long meetings involving chief secretaries, Directors General of Police and home secretaries.
You need to mobilise, deploy and disengage forces. This is a complex process that involves planning, skill, money, equipment and intelligence network.
We need police nodal officers in states and districts who go around as observers, basically keeping an eye and hoping that nothing goes wrong.
They cost fuel, vehicles, time, energy, manpower, food, communication and even weapons at times.
We need schools and embassies because they serve as polling stations. We need teachers who double as polling officers. Teachers are not trained to risk lives, which is partly why they do not intervene in the interiors and rural areas when men accompany women into a polling booth and vote for them.
This happened in Haryana and other northern states, as it probably will in other areas.
This doesn’t help the cause of democracy because it’s not a real vote. The women might choose differently if they are allowed to.
In addition, the staff at polling stations needs to be looked after. The Election Commission lists the minimum requirements: drinking water, toilets, sheds, and ramps for the physically challenged.
There are other things too – hot or cold beverages, snacks, food, electricity, and workers and volunteers as booth agents for political parties.
All of this costs money. There are 9.3 lakh polling stations for the 2014 General Election, which means several lakh rupees.
The secretary of the Department of Telecommunication [DoT], and the BSNL and MTNL are involved because they keep communication lines open to track events. Election Commission staff use BSNL and MTNL services.
Polling areas are classified according to ease of communication. For instance, scores of places are defined as communication shadow areas. This means it is difficult to reach each other. Communication involves money and equipment.
The Railway Board chairman and other seniors in the ministry of railways have a role because special trains are hired to move security forces without trouble or delay.
Trains cost money, manpower and fuel. In addition, the passengers need to be cared for – they require food, snacks, beverages, drinking water, and bedding.
The Central Board of Secondary Education [CBSE] and state boards have their share of work because of exam schedules. The Election Commission meets them and plans the polling schedule by looking at the holiday and festival calendar. CBSE meetings cost money, time and manpower.
Even the Indian Meteorological Department comes in. They have the last word, so to say. Their inputs on rain, heat, and the monsoon season virtually decide the polling schedule. Met inputs cost money, equipment, manpower and skill.
Then, there are the manufacturers of Electronic Voting Machines [EVMs], paper and indelible ink. The 2014 General Election involves 17,20,080 EVM control units and 18,78,306 ballot units. The control unit shows the results and the ballot units are where the votes are cast. These EVMs cost money as does the ink.
These 36 lakh EVMs need to be sealed after polling. Special pink paper seals are used to seal the EVMs. The seals are manufactured by a Security Printing Press in Nasik, Maharashtra. They cost money, electricity, paper and loyal staff.
There are mock poll before voting day where a thousand votes are cast. There are mock polls on voting day when 50 votes are cast. Multiple thread seals are used on the EVMs employed for mock polls; green paper seals are used for the control units that show the results of the mock poll.
There is a special register where political parties are shown the results of the mock poll. These registers and signed seals for mock polls cost money. This is not as trivial and routine as it seems. From one of these mock exercises, it was found that EVMs voted only for the BJP in an Assam constituency.
The EVMs have to be stored from voting day to counting day. This process is stretched because of the long polling schedule – this year there are nine voting days across six weeks before the results are announced.
We need armed escort, strong rooms with double locks, 24x7 armed police guards and CCTVs for the EVMs. All of this costs money, manpower and equipment.
This year the Election Commission used 20,600 EVMs with paper printouts, called Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail. This is because the political parties say they don’t trust EVMs and need printouts to verify the votes.
This defeats the purpose of EVMs, which is to be free of paper. This is the price of doubt. These paper printouts cost paper and money.
There is videography and still photography too, of filing of nominations, scrutiny, and allotment of symbols. There is webcasting from polling stations identified as critical or sensitive. This involves manpower, equipment and money.
Postal ballots are used too, which need dispatch. They cost money.
Observers, flying squads and surveillance teams don’t come free either. There are police observers at state and district levels for vulnerable booths, and micro observers from central government staff and PSUs for critical polling stations. They need to be cared for, which involves money and logistics.
There are photo voter slips, which need paper, printing and distribution. They are dumped after you vote. They have a short shelf life but cost much money.
On top of all this, the Election Commission makes special arrangements for women, aged, physically challenged and those with special needs. They can be held legally accountable if they don’t do this. These provisions cost manpower and money.
A small matter also is the special media passes on voting and counting days. They involve time, staff, printing and ink.
Always overlooked are the state bus transport services and metros which start earlier on polling day. This means early arrival of staff, overtime pay, electricity, diesel, and other operational charges.
All this, the Election Commission estimates, would cost about ₹3,500 crore this year. That is about 150% more than the ₹1400 crore it spent in 2009. For perspective, it cost ₹10.45 crore in 1952, ₹5.9 crore in 1957, ₹23 crore in 1977, ₹154 crore in 1989, ₹597 crore in 1996, and ₹880 crore in 1999.
Security expenses and political party expenses are extra. All costs included, the Indian General Election is now the second-most expensive on the planet. Some have estimated that ₹30,000 crore would be spent in all.
The Election Commission can save thousands of crores by online voting. The tension and costs of polling stations vanishes when people can vote on their mobile phones – or any device that is internet-enabled.
We come across as slow when we stick of ancient methods. We are wastrels as well.
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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi.
Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at email@example.com.