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Democracy, disciplined and enlightened is the finest thing in the world – Mahatma Gandhi
Nine years of field experience of the voter education programme, with acronym SVEEP, served as the ground work as we started the preparations for Lok Sabha Election 2019 – World’s largest election, be it the of size of electorate, the expanse, the variation in geographical terrain, the cultural diversity or the diversity of language.
To give a sense of scale of LS election 2019, its electorate stands at a mammoth 900 million, which constitutes around 69.2% of the Indian population, it covers the entire length and breadth of this vast country with area of 3.287 mn sq km. The Electoral Roll is prepared in 16 languages. On one hand we have the highest Polling station is Tashigang, situated at a height of 15,216 feet above sea level in Lahaul & Spiti, Himachal Pradesh while on the other there is the Dugong Creek Polling Station in Andaman & Nicobar Islands. While a Polling station is set up for upto 1200 electors in a rural area, Polling Station is also set up for a single voter in Gir National Park, Banej, Gujarat.
Reaching out to the last voter itself is a challenge, but the bigger challenge is providing the last voter with the requisite information so as to enable him/her to make an informed decision. SVEEP is all about Information, Motivation and Facilitation and voter awareness, is not extended just to the current electorate of 900 million, but also to the prospective Voters. Electoral Literacy Club project covers populace between 14-17 years old in Schools through ELC-Schools and those outside formal education system, through Chunav Pathshala.
Between LSE 2014 and LSE 2019, there were elections to the Assemblies of 27 States including the National Capital Territory of Delhi. These were periods of learning in all aspects of Election Management and particularly for SVEEP which had evolved as a programme only since 2010. Between the two national elections two landmark interventions were directed by the Commission. One was ‘Mainstreaming of Electoral Literacy through curricular and extra-curricular interventions’ and the second was ‘Accessible Elections’.
Mainstreaming Electoral Literacy-ELC Project
As per the observations, lowest Electoral participation is seen among the youth, particularly those in the age bracket of 18 to19 years, which is their first year of being eligible to apply for registration. Information gap among this segment is a major factor along with the lack of motivation factor as they are busier in choosing their career path and electoral participation is least of their concerns. Hence, the National Voters’ Day was dedicated to motivating these newly eligible voters.
After 5 years of discrete efforts at targeting the youth through various means, it was decided to evolve a more focussed, comprehensive approach, wherein the outreach would not be confined to election period or National Voter’s Day, but it will be a continuous process and aiming at wholesome electoral education vis-a-vis voter awareness.
The Commission sought some interventions in school curricula from the Ministry of HRD in 2015. Expecting any curricular revision to take time, parallely Commission directed for developing extra-curricular interventions for prospective or future voters. Target age-group was 14-17 years, so that when they are eligible to become electors, they would be aware of the process of elections and also about the values of electoral democracy.
The Electoral Literacy club project was thus conceptualised and by was launched on the 25th of January 2018 across the country. ELCs in schools and higher educational institutions, Chunav Pathshala in communities for those outside the formal education system was rolled out. Resources were developed on the principle of ‘learning by doing’ and activities were developed. Ahead of the Lok Sabha Election 2019, Commission directed for complete roll out of Chunav Pathshala at each booth. The aim being “Voter Education”, the concept is much different from the activities done for awareness. The activities are aims at detailed and longer engagement with citizens to their informed and sustained electoral participation. The activities are kept simple to enable any volunteer to coordinate the same with the help of resource books. Voter Awareness Forums have been set up in Organisations and Departments to cater to the organised workforce.
ELCs shall give rich dividends in years to come if they are nurtured in the same manner in which they have been conceptualised.
While provisions always existed in the Law, Conduct of Election Rules and various orders issued by Commission from time to time to facilitate Persons with Disabilities to exercise their franchise, detailed guidelines were for the first time issued in 2016 just preceding the enacting of ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.’ Accessible Elections’ was adopted as the theme for National Voters’ Day 2018 and the focus of the year 2018 was towards making elections as accessible as possible for all.
Consultations with stakeholders were held at District and later at State level. The National Consultation was a culmination of the consultations and had inputs from Political Parties, Stakeholders, CSOs and States.Based on the findings a comprehensive Action Plan was evolved for the Lok Sabha elections. The interventions included introduction of Braille EPIC, transport facility for PwD who need them, making voter awareness material and websites accessible besides utilizing technology to facilitate PwD voters.While there have been some remarkable steps taken at ground level by certain districts, in other places lots of challenges were faced. As the polling stations are already standing government buildings, many of them have accessibility issues. Making them completely accessible remains a challenge. Then there are issues of providing smooth access from the road upto the polling station. A solution was found in form of Volunteers to fill in any gap in infrastructure. While the endeavour is to provide a barrier free environment for Voters with disabilities to exercise their franchise, wherever these barriers are not surmountable immediately, help is provided to help them overcome the barrier.
Then there are issues regarding resource management. For example, while buying wheel chairs to provide facility at each polling station for elections, its utilization post elections has to be thought of. In some earlier cases, wheel chairs were procured ahead of elections by the election office and later given to either institutes for PwDs or to individual PwDs, as storage and maintenance till next elections was not possible. A more efficient way was found in recent elections , where some districts asked Panchayats to buy a wheel chair from their funds, and later use it in Panchayat Bhawan to facilitate PwD and senior citizens. Sensitization of polling and security personnel was flagged in preparations for National elections, as a major intervention and a simple session on sign language itself gave officials insights into the invisible challenges faced by the deaf community. Ahead of LSE 2019, Commission has issued strict directions on accessibility and also appointed Accessibility Observers. With the stakeholders too taken into confidence, there would be detailed information available with us post the elections on what can be further improved.
For the first time, a comprehensive national media campaign has been taken up. Broadly all major topics were covered and after discussions and deliberation the theme of ‘celebration’ or ‘Mahatyohar’ was chosen. Based on past years’ experience including the KAP survey, messages were created around the 12 identified topics. A separate campaign targeting Persons with Disabilities was also planned to be disseminated in accessible format to cover all disabilities.
National campaign aimed at supplementing the campaign by CEOs and DEOs. Some states translated the national campaign content in regional language and disseminated, while many others developed their own campaign content more relevant to the audience.
The national campaign is being run on national television channels besides Cinemas, besides on public broadcaster All India Radio and Doordarshan.
ECI forayed into social media in 2016, specifically for voter education. The experiment was slowly scaled up and in January 2018, ECI formally launched its official Facebook Page. A dedicated Twitter handle of the spokesperson to give updates to media already existed but otherwise there was no other presence on any other social media platforms. Ahead of Lok Sabha Election, the Commission decided to launch the Twitter handle and Instagram page specifically for voter education and outreach.
The essential components of the SVEEP program remain the same. Built around the principle of Information, Motivation and Facilitation, every possible connect with voters is utilized to give them information and to motivate them to vote.1956181161_IMG_20190329_135031(1).thumb.jpg.a59b64a33db7e9ec00e7d25b1a0bb3e2.jpg Facilitation is extended in every possible manner to make the process accessible and pleasant. EVM/VVPAT familiarization remains a major focus with the machines taken up through Vans for demonstration and hands on experience to cover all hamlets, booths and villages, besides colleges and organizations.
While Booth Level Officer is the last and the most vital connect of ECI at the Booth Level, both in rural and urban areas, it is the other government field level workers like ASHA, Aanganwadi worker, Preraks of National Literacy Mission, who remain the most effective partner in our connect with the people in villages. Civil Society and NGOs help ECI in reaching out to the niche audience. Volunteers from organizations like NCC, NYKS, NSS, Bharat Scouts & Guides help facilitate voters on poll day and also help election officials in voter awareness. Mobilisation activities close to poll day help amplify the message and multiply the reach. These are high visibility events like runs, human chains, competitions, rallies etc and are widely covered in media and help raise interest and awareness.
Celebrities are taken as Election Ambassadors and Icons to reach out to a wider audience. They have played an important role in motivating the people to associate with the electoral process.
Since its inception in 2009 Systematic Voters’ Education & Electoral Participation (SVEEP) division of Election Commission of India has taken numerous initiatives to educate and empower the citizens towards the electoral process. The importance of developing the practice of citizenship development for electoral participation is vital to investment in the future of democracy. As the saying goes by, youth is the future of democracy hence it is necessary to focus on the younger generation for civic education leading to robust electoral participation. Keeping this rationale in view and the motto ‘No Voter to Be Left Behind’, Election Commission of India (ECI) took a landmark step towards the cause of electoral literacy with its initiative - ‘Mainstreaming of Electoral Literacy through Educational Institutions, Organizations and Communities in India’, under its SVEEPProgramme.
The idea of setting up Electoral Literacy Club was an expedition in itself which came to life after a working group analyzed the civic studies course books from grades 6 to 10. It was found that while students are taught about democracy and functioning of the government, there is little content on the development of active electoral participation. Moreover, no information is available about something as basic as the registration/enrollment process for the voters. After the meeting, held on 13th Feb, 2017 the working group agreed upon the following:
to chalk out the Content, Method, Tools of Electoral Literacy
to study the Best Practices across the world
ELC to reach out to those outside formal education system
Neutral content to be developed with local flavour
Second Meeting of working group was held on 5th April, 2017 in ECI where in the working group recommended framing of Electoral Literacy Clubs (ELCs) with the following objectives:
to prepare future and young voters of the country by educating them about the electoral process
to provide hands-on experience and serve as a vibrant hub of Electoral Literacy
the resources should include exciting group engagement activities with well defined learning tools
ELCs should be an Interactive forum with least lecturing
Third Meeting was held in Indian Habitat Center (IHC) where NCERT text books and NIOS chapters on social science were studied to prepare the content and deliverables. This was followed by preparation of a conceptual Framework and Action plan, which after the approval of the Commission, was forwarded to CEOs of all State / UTs along with a Project document. In certain cases, it was shared up to the DEO level.
After comprehensive rounds of discussion with key stakeholders, learning outcomes and important messages were listed out. Guided by these, games and activities were developed for students of Class IX, X, XI, XII and for Chunav Pathshala members. This resource development phase continued for about six months and was followed by three rounds of field trials in schools and communities in Delhi and NCR. It was realized that the effectiveness of any activity depended on the persons convening the ELC, their language and communication skills, and their correct understanding of the messages. Hence, on December 19th and 20th 2017, ECI organized a two day workshop for a final review of tools prepared for the Electoral Literacy Clubs (ELCs). Forty participants that included Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs), master trainers, representatives from civil society organizations, educators from schools and colleges as well as development communicators from different corners of the nation were invited to further refine the learning tools, check their viability and deliberate on an effective roll-out plan to set up the ELCs. Around 30 learning tools were reviewed by the participants in the workshop.
Post the final review, a total of seven comprehensive resource guides were created and designed for the ELC project. The Resource Guides are for the benefit of club conveners and carries step by step information on how to conduct the various activities. These are: guides for classes IX – XII, Colleges, Rural Communities and a common handbook. To make it more interesting and engaging, 6 games and 2 story scrolls were also developed in association with Lady Irwin College, as tools for the purpose of engaging with communities via Chunav Pathshalas.
Under the project the following target audience is covered:–
ELC for Schools – Targeting around 7 crore students as per HRD stats in the age group of Class IX-XII in around 2 lakh senior secondary schools
ELC for Colleges – Targeting new and young voters in the age group 18 - 25 years in about 800 Universities, 39,071 colleges as per HRD stats
ELC for Communities (Chunav Pathshalas) – Targeting 1 million Polling Stations with a focus on 14-17 year olds outside of the formal education system; will include members of all ages
Voter Awareness forums (VAF) – will be set up in Government and Non-Government Organizations as well as in private institutions
A major component of the project in its execution phase was the training of the ELC conveners. Considering the sheer magnitude of the numbers the project is dealing with, a system of cascade training was finalized, wherein, ECI would train State Level Master Trainers (SLMTs), who will in turn train District Level Master Trainers (DLMTs), who subsequently train Master Trainers and on-ground Conveners. Workshops were conducted for State Level Master Trainers (SLMTs) from the 36 states and Union Territories (UTs) of the country in four batches of 40-50 participants each, in February- March 2018.
A final leg of trainings was conducted on 23rd and 24th of May 2018, with participants from CSOs from across the nation. The was felt that CSOs can play a major role in taking forward the initiative of imparting electoral literacy through games and activities within their respective organizations as well as the communities they work with. Presently, training of conveners on the ground level is taking place in all States and UTs. As an aid to these trainings, SVEEP has developed a documentary which is essentially a collection of activities under the programme. It is also available as tutorials on SVEEP portal.
No project is complete without the evaluation, hence National Law University, Delhi has been enrolled for the evaluation and impact assessment of the project. Teams of NLU have visited ELCs different states in different phases, of ELC, with the 1 st phase starting between September - October, 2018. Through these stepping stones, Election Commission of India embarks on a ceaseless journey of strengthening democracy via these young and future voters of the country.
#Go Assist – Matdata Mitras in the Abode of the Clouds, empowering the youth powering the nation – Unleashing the Power of Poll Volunteers for Accessible Elections
-By F R Kharkongor, CEO Meghalaya
Matdata denotes an individual’s inalienable right to vote, and Mitra means friend. In Meghalaya this time, with the objective of ensuring that, “No Voter should truly be left behind” over and above other measures and initiatives, undertaken, hundreds of young and future voters were effectively mobilized as Election friends or Matdata Mitras, in the just concluded Lok Sabha Elections 2019, covering both the Shillong Parliamentary and Tura Parliamentary seats, spread over 3167 Polling Stations, across 60 Assembly Constituencies. Anchored on the firm belief, that it is critical to meaningfully engage the hearts and minds of impressionable young and future voters, a much larger dividend accrues from ensuring that, it is only by actually empowering the youth, that one can also tangibly power the nation. With this end in mind, to ensure the fulfilment of the 3E’s of Engage, Empower and Express, the initiative to involve, train and deploy the Matdata Mitras, became an article of faith for Meghalaya in the recently concluded LS 2019, in the context of Inclusive and Accessible Elections.
The journey commenced a few months prior, to Lok Sabha Elections 2019, when the ECI sought specific inputs from the state, for developing suitable guidelines on the functioning of Poll Volunteers, which envisaged an enlargement and deepening of their role for LS 2019. Accordingly, building on the basic premise that “No voter should be left behind”, the role of the Poll Volunteer was gradually crafted and fashioned, aimed at meeting the objectives of inclusive and accessible elections. This initiative was gradually institutionalized by the ECI, as part of its general guidelines to achieve Assured Minimum Facilities (AMFs) in its entirety in a Polling Station, which act as a corner stone of electoral democracy. Through these assorted measures, the Poll Volunteer acquired a new centrality, on being listed as a mandatory AMF requirement, in Polling Stations, galvanizing Poll Volunteers to extend prompt and visible assistance for the broad swathe of voters, covering the hitherto marginalized and left out categories of People With Disabilities (PWD), the aged and infirmed. While making a Polling Station completely accessible, continues to be a challenge in hilly terrains like Meghalaya, faced with multiple difficulties, in ensuring smooth access for voters from road to Polling Stations due to rugged terrain. Also, in scenarios where ramps exist in Polling Stations perched on precarious hill tops, Poll Volunteers emerged as the ideal solution to surmounting these logistic and geographical barriers, with their ready presence, acting as a robust bridge and support to the aged and infirmed, ultimately making access of the marginalized to Polling Stations, both a doable and an achievable exercise.
Preparations towards this end, started in right earnest, as the support of all key stakeholders was readily enlisted, drawing on members of leading Youth Organisations of the state, such as MBSG, NSS, NYK and also involving Ashas, Anganwadis and Community Resource & Rehabilitation Workers, in those locations, where a youth organisations presence was not pronounced. After a series of detailed deliberations, it was decided that the Scouts & Guides, would cover all Polling booth located in schools, both in rural and urban areas, the NSS meanwhile would expand its reach to all such PS located in colleges, and in urban pockets and in District HQs, whereas the NYK would cover Rural areas, and in locations and hamlets where its rural volunteers were functioning. This was followed by a State Level Workshop in collaboration with the Josh Talks Team of motivators and influencers. The training dwelled on aspects ranging from orientation about the constitutional and democratic rights, to accessible elections with a deep focus on a Poll Volunteers specific role, on how to be engaged meaningfully with the electoral process, The training also paved the way for sensitizing and orienteering the freshly minted volunteers to gain firsthand experience, exposure, besides offering a ring side view of the entire Polling and Electoral Canvas.
Post training, and prior to their deployment as Poll Volunteer each volunteer, was provided colourful Poll Volunteer kits, comprising Election branded T-Shirts, Cap and poll volunteer paraphernalia to facilitate their visible and active presence and deployment in the field..
On Poll Day the Poll Volunteers truly lived up to their task, and were seen at many places actively assisting the PWD, the aged and infirmed in various Polling Stations. In some moving images, Poll Volunteers, stood proud testimony, to the ethos of compassion in action, carrying physically disabled voters, holding a senior citizens hand and escorting them to their respective Polling Stations, readily lending their shoulders to support the weak the old and the needy. The striking images of young shoulders and tender hands/eagerly and compassionately shouldering the tasks entrusted, remains etched indelibly in the public consciousness.
Undoubtedly, the meaningful engagement of the Poll Volunteers this time, generated a substantial amount of goodwill amongst the voting community, at large, and particularly amongst the marginalized and peripheral voters, therefore, for whom Poll Volunteer’s involvement will be long remembered and cherished. Leading editors in their editorials lauded the maiden foray of Poll Volunteers in the election process on Poll Day. One of the editorials, even mentioned that “…..this is a major achievement in bringing inclusiveness in the way elections are conducted in the state…the support of volunteers like Scouts & Guides, NSS is a fresh initiative in making young people engage in democracy and have a firsthand experience in the electoral process…..with these measures the office has moved one step ahead, in making a point to ensure that differently abled people and senior citizen exercise their rights without any hassle by making the polling booth truly accessible to them”. In another editorial appearing in the state’s leading daily, it was mentioned by the state’s leading editor that “the ECI has done its job commendably surpassing past efforts, and actually turning the phrase “No voter to be left behind a reality……this time the CEO has pulled all the stops to enable physically disabled voter and the elderly cast their votes without hassle….boy scouts, girl guides and NSS volunteers were seen assisting voters and volunteering happily in all the activities”.
The nascent promptings of this initiative has set a benchmark in electoral engagement of the youth, and is definitely going to have a positive ramification and a wider ripple effect, and perhaps herald a deeper and positive engagement of young people in all future elections. The authentic connect established is a manifestation of that trust, which in years ahead, is sure to further expand the narrative of inclusive democracy achieved through accessible elections. The legacy achieved undoubtedly is that of a Poll Volunteer’s indelible connect with democratic ethos and electoral democracy. Poll Volunteers collective involvement on poll day, in fact, contributed substantially to amplify the message of an increasingly inclusive and accessible election. These combined efforts will definitely fulfil the noble mandate of multiplying the electoral reach, to the unreached both in a physical tangible sense, and also in ways, that are intangible, sending out a loud message that there is an election machinery that cares about its young, its old and infirm and disabled that it is concerned for each and every voter, and that, truly every voter counts, to this effect the Poll Volunteer, has truly acted as a living bridge to democracy and in the process of being empowered, has also empowered the nation and, which in turn has enriched the entire inter play between the voter, the Poll Volunteer and the voting experience especially for the PwD aged and infirm.
The involvement, meaningful engagement and services rendered by the Poll Volunteers was duly recognized and their engagement would be continued and sustained through the ECI’s democratic platform of Electoral Literacy Clubs and Chunav Pathshalas.