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Friday, 25 October 2013

A Democracy in Name Alone: My Struggles with Voter Registration in Thane (India)


My Struggles with Voter Registration in Thane (India)

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 25 October, 2013

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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Summary

This is a first-hand account of how I was cheated today of my right to vote in the 2014 Indian election.  It talks about how various obstacles are placed and spurious conditions set by election officers to (successfully) prevent people from registering to vote.

Introduction

Today, October 25, 2013, is the deadline for voters to register for the general elections in 2014.  I have never voted in any election, so I was keen to vote for the first time.  Having been very busy with work (October is the year-ending month of our yearly performance cycle in the company I work in, so I get free of work pressure only in mid-October), I did not have time to register as a voter earlier.  The deadline was earlier supposed to be October 16th, but it had been extended to the 25th, ostensibly to allow more people to register.

So I have been quite busy for the last week trying to get myself registered to vote in India.  As I have discovered, this is not an endeavour for those faint of heart.  And even for those, like me, who think they are endowed with a sturdy heart, success is not guaranteed.

Absentee Election Officers at the Polling Stations

The first step for me was to know what forms to submit and where.  The form to submit was fairly simple to obtain, as were the instructions.  Where they were to be submitted was much trickier.  I asked two people – one, a colleague at work and the other, a neighbour in the same housing society that I live in, as to where I am supposed to submit this form.  They were not fully clear on the answer.

With a little digging on the internet, helped along with my colleague at work, I made a reasonable assumption that the voting booth (where I was told I needed to submit the form) for my residential area was a local school in Thane, the DAV Public school in Tulshibaug, Thane (W).  Accordingly, I went there a couple of times to submit my forms, only to be told that the election officers who were supposed to be at the booths from 10.30 am to 4.30 pm had not shown up for a couple of days.  I even got the number of the officer from one of the guards there and called her, only to be brusquely told in Marathi: “I am in Mantralaya.  Call me later.” (Hangs up.)

I also spoke to my neighbour in the society, and he helpfully said that one of the municipal councillors was staying in our society, and also that all filled forms could be handed over to him and he would take care of the submissions.  Consequently, when I spoke to the same neighbour a couple of days ago, I asked him if I could give him the forms.  He cautioned me that I should ensure that I had adequate documentary evidence for everything that I had mentioned – proof of identity, proof of address, etc.  I replied that I had my landline telephone bill – surely that should be enough?  He said they are being very strict, and it is better to supply two proofs of address, because some forms were being rejected.

Having heard this, I decided it best to go to the office myself, so I could handle any problems myself if they arose, rather than depend on someone else to take care of them.  Since there were only two days to go, I didn’t want to take the chance that the application forms might be rejected.

But before that, I thought I’d try the online voter registration option that showed up on the election commission site.  This started off well: you had to enter your mobile number and you would get a verification code that you could then enter into an online form for security, then follow up with all the details that the paper Form 6 required.  The proofs of address and identity could be uploaded from your computer.  But that’s when the process choked.  Whenever I tried to click upload on either the address or identity proofs, the process would give an error and exit.  So much for trying to save myself some legwork.

So I called around yesterday and talked to the municipal corporation office.  This  yielded some helpful advice from the person who answered the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) phone.  He said that voter registration falls under the ambit of the state government, not the TMC, and so, given that 25th was the last date, my best bet was to go to the Zilla Parishad Office (ZPO) near Thane Station and submit the form there.

The Thane Zilla Parishad Office

So today, I dutifully took my forms, with two proofs of residence to be sure, and as many additional proofs as I could gather, to make sure there would be no basis for rejection of the forms.  I was actually on sick leave today from the office, as I was suffering from a mild fever, a severe sore throat, and a painful cough, with phlegm threatening to choke me now and then, and had difficulty even sitting up, but I thought that voting was so important that I would bear the pain and exhaustion and still somehow register.

Finally got the strength to leave the home at 11.15 am, and took an auto rickshaw to the ZPO.  Got there in about half an hour, and after asking around I found the place where they were accepting voter registration forms.  Elated at having found the place, I went to one of the officers there and submitted the forms for me and my wife.

The officer took a cursory look at the submitted forms and then looked at the supporting proofs.  He said, “these proofs are not attested as true-copy.  This won’t do.”  I said okay and asked him if there was someone nearby who would do the job.  Sure enough, he said there’s a chap right outside the gate who will do the needful.  So I went there and the chap got all my papers stamped as true copy.  I gave him Rs. 20 for the trouble.

Incidentally, the rules in the form state that proof of age is required only when the stated age is between 18 and 25:

Figure 1: Stipulations on Requiring Documentary Proof of Age in Form 6

Know your “Part!”

Now I’m all set, I told myself.  I walked briskly and excitedly back to the desk of the officer with whom I had spoken earlier and laid the forms with the true-copy attestation on his desk.  He went through the details of what I had filled in the form, came to the section that said, “Details of applicant’s family already included in the current electoral roll of the constituency.”  (see Figure below).

Figure 2: Details of Family Members Already Enrolled (from Form 6)

He asked me why I had left it blank.  I said none of my family members were included in the electoral roll of this constituency.  He said, no, no, that will not do.  We need to have some reference there.  If not your family, the name of someone from your area, your building, etc., SHOULD be mentioned there, otherwise we cannot accept your form.  I told him the rules did not specify that, but he would not listen.  He said it was a requirement and that without that, they could not accept the form.

See the relevant instructions for this section and decide for yourself if any names NEED to be entered there.  In fact, the rules specifically state that names of people other than immediate family members should NOT be entered.

Figure 3: Instuctions for Filling Up Family Member Details in Form 6
Anyway, now that he had laid down the law for accepting the form, I had to comply.  So I asked him where I’d find the names of people to put down on the form.  To this, he said, do you know which “part” you belong to?  I said no, I don’t.  He asked me for my address again, and then said, well, why don’t you check 62 first?

This needs some explanation.  Turns out that I live in Thane Lok Sabha (Union Parliament lower house) constituency, and the Thane Lok Sabha constituency, in turn, consists of six legislative assembly constituencies: Mira-Bhayander, Ovala-Majiwada, Kopri-Panchpakhadi, Thane, Belapur, and Airoli.  Each of these legislative constituencies, in turn, is divided into hundreds of “parts.”  The Thane legislative constituency, for instance, consists of 353 “parts.”  What this chap was asking ME was to tell HIM which part I belonged to of those 353.

Should this burden be on the common man?  To help me, he said they have full printouts of all the voters in each part, and I could go ahead and check which part my housing society’s address falls in.  I said I had been told that the polling station for us was in DAV Public School in Tulshidham.  Oh, he said, why didn’t you say so, and then pulled out the full printout for that part (each of which is as big as a telephone directory, with the names, photographs, addresses, and elector Ids of every citizen in that part.)  After looking through that, he says to me, “your housing society is not mentioned here.”  

The amazing thing is that I was not alone in doing this.  The whole office was full of people who were poring through these huge books, trying to locate their housing areas and identify people who they could put down as references in the forms - a requirement that had NOT EVEN BEEN SPECIFIED in the instructions!

The officer then calls up the lady election officer who is supposed to be in charge of the DAV polling station to ask her if my society indeed belongs to that station.  She replies in the negative.  He then suggests some more part numbers for me to check.

I then go through several more directories of voter e-rolls, on directions from the officer, and fail to locate my society’s address in that those directories.  Finally, the guy calls another electoral officer to enquire where I might have to submit the form.  She tells him that I might need to go to the Majiwada TMC office to submit this.

The TMC Office in Majiwada

So I take another auto (after almost 2 hours at the first place) to the TMC office in Majiwada.  They are on lunch hour (a late lunch).  When the lady finally looks at my form, she is again unsure if I belong here.  She says, why don’t you ask someone from your society which part they belong to?  It will be on the back of their card.  I call a couple of people.  One of them says that he, too, has just applied, and doesn’t know; the other says that he got his elector card in Chembur, a different part of Mumbai, so he has no idea about the current part in Thane.

After further discussion, the lady asks me, for confirmation, whether I own my home that is mentioned in the form.  I reply that I do not own it but am renting it.  She says, “Oh, that might be a problem.”  I say, “Why?”  And she says, “Well, if you rent it, then you are there for one year – and there is no guarantee that you will be there next year at election time!”

I try telling the lady that these stipulations are absolutely absurd, because the voter registration form allows even homeless people to register, and in fact is very lenient with them – and with homeless people, you don’t know where they will be tomorrow, let alone next year.  They don’t need to submit any proofs of residence either – they only need to say which street corner they normally sleep on, and the election officers will come in the evening to verify that they indeed do sleep there.  I ask the lady, “Why am I being asked to jump through so many hoops when a homeless person is taken on his word?”  She backs off and says she’s not an election officer, just a teacher who is doing this part-time as part of government regulations, so while she understands it is absurd, she cannot help me.

Figure 4: Provisions for Homeless People and Their Address Documentation
The lady shrugs helplessly, but helpfully suggests that I talk to the big man in his cabin, both for advice about the part to fill in as well as whether the fact that I am a renter will cause problems.  However, he is having his lunch right then, and there is already a big queue of people to see him, and it has already been 3 hours since I set out to get this card, and my headache and tiredness are only getting worse.  To add to everything, it is looking bleak for me now and I have lost all hope of getting myself registered.  Unable to wait any longer, my spirit completely broken, I take an auto rickshaw and come home, fuming at the injustice of my disenfranchisement.

On the way I talk to the auto driver about my experience. He agrees with me and says that the poor people do not have to give any documentation.  He also says that he had applied for his voter ID card 6 years ago and never received it.  However, his name keeps figuring in the list of voters.  The last time, someone tried to stop him from voting because he did not have his voter ID card, but he successfully stared the man down.

So I came home, lay down a while to recover, and then decided that if they were not going to let me vote, let me at least write this article in protest.

Concluding Thoughts

If these are the kinds of struggles one has to go through just to get their name registered to vote, then I am sorry, India is a democracy in name alone.  The central, state, and local governments, for all their “registration drives,” have no genuine desire in allowing the common man to vote – at least the urban middle class voter. In fact, they would prefer that the educated, urban middle class voter not vote.

For the really poor voter, things are greatly streamlined – party workers come to their slums or hutments, give them forms to sign/thumb-print, submit them on their behalf, and make sure they get their cards in time.  And, on Election Day, the rural and urban poor are trucked to the nearest polling stations, cash and booze are stuffed in their pockets, and they are asked to vote for the party that sponsors them. 

Yes, voters are needed and encouraged in India, but only the “right” kind of voters.  Voters who might vote their mind are actively discouraged from voting by imposing unnecessary restrictions on them.  Consider the number of problems that I encountered which point to unfairness:

1.       Need to know which “part” I belong to. 
a.      Why impose this burden on the voter? 
b.      How many people are aware of the detailed administrative breakdown of their legislative assembly constituency – to the extent of knowing which of 353 parts of Thane assembly constituency they belong to? 
c.       Should this not be something the election officials of that constituency are aware of? 
d.      Should this not be easily obtainable on the computer with a simple address search?  I actually asked the officer if he could not just check with my address, and he said there was no such provision.  This information is not available on the ChiefElectoral Officer of Maharashtra’s website.  And you certainly cannot find it on the website of the Election Commission of India.
2.      Need to have proofs for identity.  This when the instructions specifically state that such a proof is necessary only for those whose age is between 18 and 25; for others they will accept the declaration without proof.
3.      Asking for attestation of documents (not specified with the instructions) for an address proof when it is clearly mentioned that election workers will come and verify your address by visiting you at the stated address.  This is also stipulated when the same form also says that homeless people need not supply anything except state which street corner they normally sleep on; the election officers will visit the place in the evening to confirm the address.  How is it that a person with a job and a home has less credibility than a homeless person?
4.      Telling me that the fact that I rent and don’t own my residence is a potential problem.  If this is a problem, then most of the people living in Mumbai cannot vote!  This is a deliberate attempt to put one more obstacle in my path.

It is clear to me at least, from first-hand experience, that all Indian governments (central/state/local/municipal) lie when they say that they want a high voter turnout.  My personal experience has been that they deliberately placed obstacles in my path and successfully prevented me from registering to vote.  There is no point passing the buck and saying that this official or that was guilty.  Ultimately, to me, the people who are in authority – the politicians – must take the blame.  If they set the right tone and tell their underlings how to behave, none of this would happen.  But the politicians we have are cynical and care only about their votes, not the people.  That attitude simply percolates down to the Sarkari Karmachari.

I live in a sham democracy and do not trust my governments.  

Today my governments disenfranchised me of the right to vote in the 2014 general elections.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Remembering Navratri – and Watching Kids Today Growing up Without Childhoods

Remembering Navratri – and Watching Kids Today Growing up Without Childhoods

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 10 October, 2013

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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It is Navratri in India – the festival of nine nights celebrating the different forms of the goddess, the female force in the world.  It is one of the most important festivals of Hinduism, and is marked by much pageantry.

In Tamil homes, Navratri is celebrated by having doll displays (Golu) in homes.  The dolls are of gods and goddesses, as well as secular figures, and usually arranged in a mini-staircase arrangement (see this for a fairly elaborate Golu).  Often, along with the dolls, people create contemporary urban or rural scenes in miniature, such as schools, railway stations, temples, merry-go-rounds, wells, parks, fields, cattle, roads, and the like with small dolls of people engaged in assorted occupations.  A Navratri display in a Tamil home can be as elaborate as one wants it to be.  People often search for interesting and unique dolls far and wide so they can showcase them in their golu. 

Conversations between old-timers often are on the lines: “Look at my golu doll of Lord Krishna.  I bought it in 1962 – see how fresh the paint on it still looks!  Nowadays, the idols are not so well-made, the features are not so good, and the paint also flakes off very soon.  Everything is going down the drain.”  Everyone else nods sagely in agreement.  Or, “Look at those unique Chinese dolls that I found a few years ago – I just had to have them in my golu!” Or, "My husband got those two dolls for me when he went to Jaipur 2 years ago.  And those dolls on the third row are from a business trip he made to Japan.  And the ones on the bottom we picked up from Poompuhar - aren't they cute?"

When I was a child, we used to have elaborate Navratri golu displays in our homes.  We also had toy trains, matchbox cars with elaborate tracks, and electric toy race tracks with cars, all of which would go on display along with the golu.  Our home was one of the most decorated homes during Navratri.

Maami Sundal!

Festivals are useless without special foods, and Navratri is no exception.  In Tamil homes, every evening of Navratri is an occasion for the preparation of a “sundal,” a spicy and savory treat made with pulses.  Each day the pulse is varied – one day with garbanzo beans, another day with black-eyed peas, another day with peanuts, one day with peas, and so on.  Some days snacks other than pulses are also prepared.  For example, my mom made sankar pela, a fried savory item, yesterday.

Every evening, all the children of the neighbourhood would come and knock on the doors of our flat, crying out, “Maami sundal!” (“Maami” being an address to the lady of the house.)  We’d welcome them in, they’d look at the golu, see the train, the cars, the pastoral doll scene, etc., and my mom would give them all packets of the day’s sundal wrapped in newspapers.  Each day we probably had about 25 kids visiting to see the golu and partake of the sundal.  Every evening, after coming home from school, it was part of my duties during those nine days to wrap the day’s sundal in dozens of small packets to distribute to the kids and adults who would visit.  I also used to go to other’s homes to see their golus and ask for their sundal.  It was a great way to keep in touch with each other.

Singing for the Goddess

In addition to this, the ladies of the neighbourhood would visit each other during Navratri.  This being a festival of the divine mother, ladies have a very important part to play in it.  The festival used to be a very good way to socialize and catch up with your friends and relatives.  As a small kid, I’d often be ordered by my mom to escort her as we went to other people’s homes in the evening.  I used to find this quite boring, because they would talk about all their adult concerns which were completely uninteresting to a kid; but I had no choice and couldn’t say no. 

One of the common customs during Navratri is that people (especially ladies, but even gents who can sing) are encouraged to sing Carnatic classical songs in praise of the deity.  So whenever someone came to our home to see our golu, my mom would ask them to sing a song or two; and when my mom and I went to someone’s home, they’d ask my mom to sing something (I had no interest in Carnatic music at that time.)  Small girls in Tamil Brahmin homes would usually be trained in Carnatic singing; so one common scene during those days was to see young girls in their pavadai-davani (blouse-skirt – similar to the North Indian choli-ghaghra) come and sing whatever they had learnt from their teacher recently (in praise of the goddess, of course).

The final day of Navratri is Saraswati puja, in which all the books that we study are worshipped along with Saraswati, the goddess of learning.  The day after the nine days is Vijaya Dashami, the day when new learning is begun.

The whole festival had so much fun associated with it that it is impossible to forget.  For 16 years I lived abroad, but the memories of Navratri were always etched in my memory – taking the dolls out of storage the day before; arranging the golu; decorating everything; the kids ringing the bell and saying “Maami sundal”; visiting with neighbours and relatives; and the happy occasion of Saraswati puja (the day you were not supposed to touch your school books as you were worshipping the goddess that day!)

Playing in the Dark

But now, I am back in India, and yes, we do celebrate Navratri even today – we have a golu in our home as I write this.  But no kids come home saying “maami sundal.”  They don’t have the time.  They are too busy doing homework, going to tuition classes, going to music, drawing, and dance classes, not to mention personality development and other such trainings.  (I should add: I live in Mumbai.  I have seen the same thing in Pune and Bangalore, but I don’t know how things are in Chennai.)

Why talk about Navratri?  When I was a kid, on any day, we used to come home from school at 4.30 pm, and immediately used to change clothes, go out and play outdoors until sunset, which was 6.30 or 7.00 pm.  The only criterion on when to come back home was that the light was so dark that the tennis ball which was used to play cricket could not be clearly seen any more.  Once we got home, then we’d work on homework and other things, then have dinner and sleep.  No coaching classes of any kind – but plenty of fun!  If it was raining outside, we’d take out the carrom board and play carrom for hours on end, accompanied by cups of hot coffee, tea, or Horlicks, and the choicest snacks to go with them.

But now, when I get home from work, I see no children outside (if I manage to get home when there is still light).  The first time I saw this was quite unbelievable – it was 5.30 pm, bright light outside, and not a kid in sight.  And then, suddenly, at 7 pm, after it was dark and the electric lights went on in the housing society where I live, all the kids came out to play.  I couldn’t understand why the kids weren’t playing in sunlight but preferred to play in streetlights.  On inquiring, I found out that all the kids go to coaching classes immediately on arriving from school, and the classes end only at 7 pm, and so that’s when they play.

This is wrong.  Children should play in the sunlight – that’s how they get Vitamin D - from the sunlight falling on their skin.  And not just this – there is something really uplifting about playing in the sunlight.  This is why, in some countries in the Northern Hemisphere, such as the USA, people are often afflicted by what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a psychological illness with the symptoms of depression that is linked to the absence of sunlight in the winter, when days are very short – sunrise can occur at 8 am and sunset at 4.30 pm.  These people are diagnosed “light therapy” – treatment with artificial lights to compensate for the lack of sunlight.  And here in India, you are asking kids to stay indoors and play in the darkness when there is abundant sun available!!  Not to mention that you cannot possibly play cricket in your society compound when it is hard to see the ball!  And all this sacrifice for what?  To attend coaching classes??

The Coaching Class Culture

Why do children need coaching classes all their lives?  I can understand if parents are concerned about a coaching class for the kid who is in the Xth or XIIth standard, as they are preparing for important public board exams and so think a little extra assistance may be needed.  But why have ANY coaching for a kid in the 5th standard?  When are these children going to have a little fun and enjoy their childhood?  I am truly saddened that these kids cannot live the carefree life I lived as a child.  No coaching classes for me – except I did try Agrawal’s classes for XIth standard, hated it, and told my dad I wouldn’t enrol in it again in the XIIth standard. I simply told my dad that Agrawal’s classes was robbing me of all my play time, and he agreed.

Agrawal’s classes was the premier coaching establishment in Mumbai when I was a student, with its main branch in Dadar Circle. Their most coveted class, the “vacation batch” of XIIth std. coaching, was a perfect way to ruin the summer vacation before you entered the XIIth grade – spend the entire vacation enrolled in the “vacation” batch of Agrawal’s classes and mugging away.

No siree Bob!  Not for me.  I enjoyed my vacation soundly, slept happily every afternoon, had fun with my Dad on the weekends when we’d go to South Mumbai to take photos and he’d teach me about photography before both of us heading to eat at “Chetna” or “Talk of the Town” or some other place in that area.  The entire summer vacation was meant for fun.  My father wasn’t much bothered, really, whether I got into engineering or not.  He used to tell me that engineering and medicine were not the only things to study in this world.  If I got in, fine; if I didn’t, he said pure sciences were also a good option to pursue (he himself was an organic chemistry professor, and a very successful one, so he had reason enough to say this.)

The only coaching class I took in addition to that XIth Agrawal class was the correspondence course for IIT-JEE from Agrawal.  Even in that year, I never missed my daily dose of carrom for 2 hours a day or other games.  I also got sick that year with TB and was bed-ridden for 2.5 months.  And I didn’t do too badly – got into IIT Bombay with a pretty good rank.


I can make similar comments about music, dance or any other personality-development class parents put their kids through.  All this is good, of course, but within bounds and in balanced quantities.  A sensitivity for music or dance in a child is desirable, but not at the cost of basic playtime, and outdoor playtime at that.  Nothing equals the sheer joy of playing in the sun.  If there is time left over, then chuck the academic coaching class and let the kid learn one thing - be it music, dance, or whatever he or she fancies.  Don't make it an obsession. Training your kid in music is not going to guarantee that she will become the next Lata Mangeshkar, MS Subbulakshmi, or Kishori Amonkar, just as making your son mug all day is not going to ensure he becomes an engineer or doctor.

You Either Have it Or You Don’t

People have to stop obsessing about the rat race and think about the negative consequences of denying their children childhoods and the precious memories that go with it.  My personal belief has always been that if you’ve got what it takes, you don’t really need any coaching classes.  If you don’t have what it takes, all the coaching classes won’t help you.  I think most people’s experience, if they are honest about it, will bear this out.  The coaching establishments are taking everyone for a ride.

It’s much like that exam, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which one has to do well in to get admitted to American Universities after an undergraduate degree.  The GRE, when I took it, had a Verbal, a Quantitative, and an Analytical section.  The Quantitative was the easiest section, and you were widely expected to ace it.  The Analytical was also easy to score, since it was mostly composed of puzzles and you could solve all of them with a little practice.  The real roadblock for most people was the Verbal section, which tested your English.  Most people would go around rote-memorizing words and their meanings by the hundreds, hoping that such an effort would help them achieve success in the Verbal portion of the GRE.  But what I noticed was that only those whose native comprehension of English and ability to use the language well were already fairly good (because of a lifetime of reading) actually did well in the exam.  All the rote-memorization was really of little use.

The same lessons are true for kids in today’s world.  Yes, you should work and prepare for exams.  But working all the time, spending all your free time in coaching classes, and obsessing about exams, will never get you there.  If you still made it after all that pain, don’t attribute your success to the coaching class.  You would have gotten in any way.  And there is a price you are paying for all this.  Don’t forget the old saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  We are raising a generation of dull Jacks and Jills.

So parents, next year, please don’t ruin your kids’ childhood.  Let them go around the neighbourhood shouting “Maami sundal” and admiring each other’s golus – and just be kids.