Diary of a poll officer: fair, peaceful but did we go by the book?

A presiding officer of a polling station in Arrah, Bihar, describes how they broke a few rules to help democracy. A first-person account of an official who will remain anonymous

shubhendu

Shubhendu Parth | May 5, 2014


A polling official cheks and tallies the EVMs. Representational photo
Sonu Kishan/ Governance Now

When I first got a call on my mobile from the block education officer (BEO), it got me worried. I decided not to take the call and respond after 15-30 minutes. Was it about the inspection of the school or was it about my transfer, I wondered? It could also be about the mid-day meal scheme since I had sent a letter that at the existing rate it was nearly impossible to feed quality meal to children.

I quickly took a round of the school to check if everything was in order.

Assured that everything was running smooth, I decided to call back the BEO. Apologising for not being able to take his call since I was in the classroom, I asked for his orders.

“Nothing much,” he said. “You must be tired with the daily school routine so here is the time to take a break and enjoy.” He informed me that I have been assigned the role of presiding officer for one of the polling booths in the second phase of voting in Bihar. “It is one of the critical polling stations in Agiyaon but I am sure you will be able to ensure free and fair voting at the centre,” he said. “Come to my office tomorrow and collect the documents,” he said and disconnected the call.

Agiyaon and Terari were the two Naxal-hit areas in Arrah where the election commission had decided to cut polling period by two hours. In fact, newspapers had reported that the superintendent of police and the district magistrate of Arrah had both requested the EC to close polling in the areas by 4 pm.

The first phase of voting in the state on April 10 in six seats in Maoist-affected areas had witnessed the killing of two CRPF personnel in a blast and an ambush in Munger. Can bombs, IED and explosives were found in Gaya and Aurangabad districts, where the Maoists had called for boycott of polls.
I had a similar experience of conducting polls in Naxal-hit remote areas in Chatra (now in Jharkhand) and very well understood the challenges and security hassles. However, given the state of preparedness as reported by the media, this time in Bihar, there was no reason for anxiety. But as a habit, I decided to carry a packet of sattu (roasted gram flour), few onions and plastic sheet. I also decided to travel light and had a backpack to fit in my stuff.

April 15, 2014

10.20 am: I reached the material collection centre, a block-level middle school by bus. I registered my attendance and went to the polling party table allotted to me. My team or polling party members P1, P2 and P3, as they are referred to, were already there. My colleagues informed me that while polling parties had started reaching the centre from 9 AM itself, a few were yet to be allotted a table.

11.30 am: Suddenly there was lot of activity and people movement. We walked out to find that more tents were being erected and the tables were being set up. The centre was meant for 300 parties and as per the norm, each polling party of four is allotted a table.

The scorching heat was becoming difficult to bear and I went out to get some water. There was no arrangement for drinking water! I was informed that there was a hand-pump in the school premise.

“The water level has gone down,” someone standing near the hand-pump said. “Please wait.” Soon another man came in with a bucket of water. “Pehle isko pilayenge, fir ye humae pilayega (first we will give water to the tubewell, then it will give us water),” he said with a chuckle. As he started filling up the hand pump, I pumped it and soon water was flowing.

2 pm: The polling material—usually around 26 envelopes of different sizes and colour, the pack of indelible ink, various seals and stamp pads, stationery and, last but not the least, 20 ballot papers for those who do not want to use electronic voting machine (EVM)—were yet to reach the centre. We were waiting, and we were hungry. But there was no arrangement for lunch. I remembered my pack of sattu but decided not to take it out. We still had more than two days to go and a kilogram of my food packet was too little.

2.30 pm: We decided to go out and check if there was anything available in the local market. We bought a dozen bananas, sufficient for four of us.
4 pm onwards: We were informed by the local authorities that the material will be distributed the next day from 10 am onwards. “You may leave now,” the officer said.

The area was alive with unknown people who had no place to stay—not to talk about basic arrangements like toilets, drinking water and food. Since the school premises had to be closed, we also lost our source of water. The locals, however, were a helpful lot and guided us to a tap and a chaiwala nearby. The roadside tea-stall owner agreed to cook a meal for us. With nothing else to do, we joined a group that was playing cards. Soon it was dark and the pleasure was lost. There was nothing to do except try and sleep wherever we could find a place. I had my plastic sheets to lie down on. But it was difficult to beat the mosquitoes. I do not know when I fell asleep.

April 16, 2014

Around 5 am: I do not recall exactly what time I woke up. But I do recall one of my team members telling me, “Sir khet ho aate hain nahi to ujala ho jayega (lets go to the fields to defecate before it’s bright).”  And I thank him for that. With no arrangement of of toilets for the 1,200 poling officials, the only option was to search for a corner in the fields nearby. For someone used to answering the nature’s call in private, sunrise would have meant bearing the load the whole day.

Waking up early also helped me avoid the long queue at the public hand-pump and the nearby lone tap. Besides, I also managed to get a proper bath. But the morning tea and newspaper had to wait. I chopped some onion, mixed it with sattu and added some water to bind them and made four laddus (balls). One of my team-members had brought farhi (puffed rice) as we ordered some biscuits to have with tea. We enjoyed our breakfast in the ‘lawn’.

9 am: My fellow polling officers and I were at our table inside the distribution centre. Other parties also started coming in. But the material was yet to come.

1 pm: Finally, we heard the announcement. The polling material had arrived and we were asked to wait at our table which now had the booth number marked on it.

2.30 pm: We were handed the polling material, including the voter list. As the presiding officer, I cross-checked the material handed over to us against the list and signed off the receiving papers. We were informed that based on the booth location, arrangements for accommodation had been made at various cluster centres. Since it was late afternoon, we were advised to quickly board the respective vehicles and leave.

3 pm: We had been assigned a tractor for the 25-km journey to the cluster centre. There were two more teams. “We are dispatching people in small groups so as not to attract too much attention of the extremist groups,” the driver told me. He was a local and looked quite nervous. The road on the first 10-kms stretch was very good and it was a smooth ride, as good as a tractor could possibly provide. The remaining 15 kms were kutcha bumpy road. All of us were trying ways to cushion the jolts and I even sat on my backpack hoping that it will act as a shock absorber, but to no avail.

5.45 pm: We reached the cluster centre. To say that we all got down from the tractor with bruised bottoms will be an understatement. I wanted to quickly lie down and stretch myself. To our surprise there was a 40X40 feet tent set up for us. What amused me more was the fact that security force deployed at the centre seemed more concerned about their own safety than that of the polling parties. Typically, in a situation like this accommodation for the polling officials should have been inside the school building with the security forces ring-fencing the cluster centre. Instead, they were holed up inside the building with 10 polling party members, tired and hungry, stationed at the entry point, guarding them like a shield.  

7.10 pm: I saw a lame man in his late 40s entering the tent. He was barely able to walk and was leaning on a young boy for support. Despite his physical condition and handicap, he was assigned poll duty, which by mandate one cannot refuse. He seemed too afraid to even put forth his case and hence, as I later came to know, brought his son along.

April 17, 2014

3.15 am: I don’t remember if I slept, but I realised I could not lie down. I had severe itching on my hands, legs and blisters due to mosquito bites. Who needs Maoists when the army of mosquitoes was already at work? I decided to get ready and at 4.45, we were handed over the EVM comprising the ballot and controlling unit.

5 am: We set out for the polling station under heavy police cover. It was a mixed feeling of being treated like a VIP and the overpowering fear of being ambushed. The security personnel were polite and friendly. We were travelling the road less travelled—criss-crossing the fields. “The danger of unknown path is always lesser than what lies beneath the known path,” one of the security guys whispered philosophically.

6 am: We reached the polling station safe. And as we moved inside the booth, without wasting even a moment the security guys accompanying us joined the others and took up their position. While I envied them last night as they had better arrangements for food and beds, I was happy they slept well. They could not have afforded to miss a wink on D-day.

Since we had just an hour before the polling commenced, the team quickly got into the act. It was important to set the process rolling and complete the mock poll, which is meant to show to the local representatives and the polling agents that the EVM is working fine and that it has not been rigged.

6.30 am: The polling agents were all in and villagers started queuing up. For the first time I felt nervous and apprehensive. I came out and made the customary appeal to seek support for a peaceful polling. A few seniors came up and promised support. I asked the polling agents and seniors to come in for the mock poll. It is a longish process. One has to erase all records from the EVM. This can be seen in the display of the controlling unit, which also shows the total number of contestants.

Once the EVM is set to zero, the polling agents and a few people are asked to cast dummy votes. I decided to issue them a voting slip so that it can be tallied against the votes registered by the EVM. While the standard operating process (SOP) suggests that we should cast a minimum of 100 mock votes, we were running short of time and hence decided to close it at 45. Once the polling agents and the locals were assured that the EVM was not rigged, I cleared all the data and sealed the control unit in their presence. It was already 7.10 am and we decided to start the polling.

2.15 pm: While there was an occasional flow of tea from the school’s anganvadi kitchen, the need for a meal did not once cross my mind. One of my team members (P3) seemed very uneasy and would pick up his phone every now and then. I reminded him a couple of times the the EC directive to not to use mobile phones inside the polling booth applies to us as well, but it fell on the deaf ears. Suddenly, the security in-charge came in and indicated that we need to wrap up. “Isn’t it too early,” I replied with a question. He did not say a word. Instead, he held his assault rifle in a way as if to shoot me, looked at me and just walked out.

The nervy guy followed him. He came back within minutes and started shouting that he does not want to stay back any more. The other team-members and polling agents tried to calm him, but he stormed out of the room.

2.35 pm: The security in-charge came again, standing at the door he said, “We need to leave. You have 10 minutes.” It was an order. I looked at my colleagues and the polling agents and everybody stood up. There was an approval in their silence. Quickly they signed the final documents. It was their certificate that the polling was conducted properly. We did not have time to even seal the EVM. I just pressed the black button to close the voting, put the control unit in its case, and dumped it into the white bag. The ballot unit and stationery were put into separate sacks.

By 2.45 pm we were back on the road headed towards the cluster centre, this time with more security personnel surrounding us.

4.45 pm: I was greeted by the magistrate who was in-charge of my polling party. I informed him that the polling went of peacefully but we had only 39 percent participation. I also briefed him that we did not get time to seal the machine and envelopes.

I wanted to quickly complete the process and asked my colleagues to help me with packing the stuff. “Let us move from here. You can do it at the collection centre,” the magistrate said. I did not protest.

6.50 pm: We reached the EVM collection centre. This is the place where EVMs are deposited and kept in the strong-room after polls. I could see polling parties pouring in with their materials. There were several counters to handover the EVM and rest of the stuff and long queues. But everyone seemed relieved.

Sorting out the 26 envelopes, putting in comments, sealing them and the EVM took us nearly an hour. Usually it is the responsibility of the presiding officer to hand over the material but my team-mates, except P3, decided to stay back.

1.30 am: Finally it was our turn. We deposited the polling materials and heaved a sigh of relief. Instantly, a question cropped up: “How do I get home from at this hour?” I asked the guy at the counter who said “Bahar se bus le lijiye (take a bus from outside).” But he was also quick to add that buses will be available only after six in the morning. We decided to rest and walked towards the school ground. We had several pouches of water to support us till dawn.

April 18, 2014

8.30 am: I reached home, tired, with swollen foot and hyper acidity; but I was happy. I was also amazed at the way we managed to conduct the poll. It was fair and peaceful, but did we go by the book? I fell asleep thinking whether the suffering that I and thousands of polling officials go through is worth the effort, and for whom? Will my suffering help people like me or the few whom we choose to vote for?

As told to Shubhendu Parth
The name of the presiding officer has been witheld on request. The photographs are from Bihar but not from Arrah constituency and are meant for representation purpose only.

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