MANASH PRATIM DUTTA
GUWAHATI, March 28 - At a time when the Election Commission has taken commendable steps to make polling in the upcoming Lok Sabha election accessible to all differently-abled voters of the country, activists of Assam have called for assurances of a life of dignity for every differently-abled person of the State.
“The reason behind low turnout of differently-abled voters in Assam is not only the lack of accessibility, but the core reason is the lack of a life of dignity. Differently-abled people of the State always try to cast their vote in every election despite various challenges. We are thankful to the Election Commission for the initiative it has taken for differently-abled voters this time,” Nripen Malakar, a Guwahati-based activist working for the rights of differently-abled persons of the State, told The Assam Tribune.
According to Malakar, differently-abled persons of Assam still lag behind in terms of availability of various facilities extended by the government only due to the lack of awareness among officials concerned.
“Most of the officials who have been entrusted for our development, are not aware of our various rights. Most of them have not even gone through the Act formulated for the rights and development differently-abled persons of the country. So this section of people in Assam still remain deprived of many facilities,” Malakar rued.
The activist also said that in Assam the ‘Accessible India Campaign’ or ‘Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan’ is yet to start. No building in the State is equipped with proper facilities for movement of differently-abled persons.
“We are also humans and deserve a respectful life rather than sympathy from other people of society. Government should carry out a mass awareness drive on the rights of differently-abled persons so that the general perspective about us would change,” he added.
Niranjan Kalita, another activist working for differently-abled persons said, “ For a long time now we have been suffering from lots of problems. But no government is concerned about us. Even our issues are not highlighted in the election manifesto of any political party during election time. We need proper implementation of the Act formulated for our development. Especially in Assam, there is an urgent need to issue certificates to all differently-abled people. But due to lack of proper infrastructure, many of us still remain deprived of the certificates as well as other benefits as per law.”
Kalita said the government should lay emphasis on developing accessible footpaths, public transportation and all office buildings for differently-abled persons. Moreover, in Assam there is also a need to set up higher educational institutions for such people.
“We can avail our benefits only when there is an accessible environment for us. Unless there is accessibility for us, no government scheme will see good results. Moreover, large numbers of differently-abled people in Assam still do not get pension and monthly stipend. Even the much-awaited recruitment drive against reserved posts lying vacant in various State government departments is yet to start. We hope our MPs will show concern for our issues,” Kalita added.
It is noteworthy that for the ensuing Lok Sabha election, the Election Commission of India has issued a list of requirements to officials concerned for making accessible polling stations for differently-abled voters.
The list includes flat roads approaching polling stations along with wide, non-slippery pavements with ramps, signage, pictures and enlarged text to guide voters towards polling stations, vehicle parking for persons with disabilities inside and outside the premises of polling stations with universal disability symbol.
The Commission directed provision of sheds at every polling station in the waiting area with adequate numbers of wheelchairs where there will be no queue for persons with disabilities.
There should be the universal disability symbol at the entrance for persons with disabilities and in case of separate entry for persons with disabilities, the entrance should be free of bumps or sand. In case there are stairs, then there should also be ramps with proper gradient minimum three feet wide and strong enough to hold a person using wheelchair. The ramps should be smooth without any damage or danger and should have handrails on both sides.
The list of requirements also directed that the door to the polling booth should be kept open and the doorway should be minimum three feet wide for wheelchair users. The hallway or pathway to polling rooms should be free of obstacles with signage. The polling room should be on the ground floor or must have elevators or ramps that can accommodate wheelchairs. The entire polling station should be well lit with adequate space for wheelchair users to move around freely between registration and ballot tables in polling rooms. Information or posters on voting process must be available outside and inside the polling room written in large text and Braille with pictures and plain language, counters, desks, ballot sheets and EVMs at a wheelchair-accessible height. Ballot sheets and EVMs should be in Braille. Restrooms or toilets must have easy-to-open doors three feet wide and flat floors with handrails and accessible height. The Election Commission list also mentions many other requirements for differently-abled voters.