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The Rediff Special/ B R Roy
First Person: A polling officer's tales
May 19, 2008
The first thing that a guy on poll duty in West Bengal does as he sets out on P minus 1 day (the day before the poll) is to check his rations. It is almost given that unless one carries rations then he will have to practice fasting for 48 hours. The presiding officer of the polling party is handed over a paltry Rs 110 to feed his party of six for two days as well as pay for other expenses.
Three-tier panchayat elections involve electing members to three tiers of the panchayat -- hence three sets of ballot papers and all paperwork in triplicate. Reaching the polling station at about 1 pm on P minus 1, we find that our nightmares are starting to come true. The booth is a ramshackle primary school with windows, electricity and water conveniently absent. That is convenient for the locals who appear to sell water and food at exorbitant prices. The paperwork must be started immediately since sundown means darkness and the three measly candles provided won't offer much light.
At about this time we discover that our booth has a electoral strength of 858 voters which, it being a three tier election, translates into 858�3=2,574 votes. Further quick calculations show that allowing for an 80 per cent turnout and a minimum of two minutes per voter it would take 22 hours for the actual voting process to end.
While we are digesting this information with a Spartan calm, the sector officer in charge of providing us with the basic amenities shows up. He is mobbed and beats a hasty retreat and is not seen till the start of poll the next day. The marked absence of polling agents on the evening before is a bad sign since they generally turn up to exchange pleasantries. To compound matters, the police officer in charge of our sector comes and informs us to be extra cautious since there have been 'unconfirmed' intelligence of a possible booth capture.
Polling starts on time and the polling agents -- all of them -- sit like vultures waiting to pounce on a slip. The police staff on duty, go off to sit under a tree and smoke, leaving the security of the booth to a home guard with a stick. As the day progresses, we can hardly look up from the electoral roll to identify the person standing before us and have to rely on the polling agents who call out 'thik ache' (ok) every time a name is called. We are averaging a name every minute and so no chance of getting up to have a drink or relieve ourselves.
As the queue starts getting longer under the summer sun and tempers outside get shorter by the minute. Expletives are called out, but we cannot even look up from the electoral roll, all the while sweating in the small unventilated room. Appeals to the police and the polling agents to maintain order in the line are met with stern orders of 'haath chalan' (work quickly).
Apart from stray incidents, the poll continues at a steady rate till two in the afternoon. After that the ranks outside start to swell alarmingly. The home guard on duty chooses the apparent safety of the booth (polling station), but is rudely pushed aside by the mass who pours inside the room. Appeals to maintain order fall on deaf ears. The polling agents, all from different parties, look the other way. Three men, all muscular characters, come in and like magic, a semblance of order is established. The rules of the Election Commission on restriction of entry in the booth flies out of the nearest opening.
Meanwhile the presiding officer has called up the sector officer who, on arriving, takes a frightened peek and promptly disappears. The first polling officer (yours truly) is ordered brusquely to continue calling out names. I do so and observe that none of the polling agents object. Checking identity is suspended as a solitary attempt to do so is met with threats of physical violence. The women still in the queue are sent home politely. 'Voters' do not need to come in -- the queue has formed inside the booth itself. I call out names and they come forward one by one take the ballot papers and mark publicly without feeling the need to go into the voting compartments. We have not been able to leave our seats nor have food or water since 6.30 am.
The three muscular characters take care of everything. The only interesting thing I discover is that the voters are all distributing their votes among the three major contestants. The three handymen were telling them where to put their marks and they were happily doing so. While in the first four hours of the poll the rate of voting was 60 per hour and in the last two it went up to 118 and hour.
At 15 minutes to five our plea to end it all is finally heard. We inform everybody that 60 per cent of the voters have cast their votes, the crowd is shooed away by the three mysterious men and by 5.30 pm we can close the doors of the booth and start offering our prayers for our lucky deliverance.
Things are however far from ending. After the customary sealing of ballot boxes and the requisite paperwork, we discover that our adjoining booth contains some very unhappy men. The people are unhappy at the voting process and have taken upon themselves to imprison the polling officials therein. Matters are finally resolved early on the next day at 2.30 am and we set off to submit our materials.
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