Muthukumari is a teacher at Aruppukkottai in Virudhunagar district. She has been posted as a polling officer in a constituency which is located about 57 kilometres from her native town. “Why should women be posted so far away and that too at the time of COVID? How can we possibly influence the voters if posted in nearby polling booths? After all, don’t we have CCTV cameras, observers, etc in a polling booth?” asked Muthukumari.
Most women posted as polling officers all over the state expressed similar discontent. Some of them cited health reasons such as abnormal blood pressure, diabetes, etc, in showing their inability to travel to distant polling stations amidst COVID threat. They said their families worry because there is no public transport right now to travel to and fro to polling stations.
Women government employees said though they have been taking part in election work for many years, some of their basic demands have not been met by the Election Commission of India. “Women work at par with men during election duty. While the men travel to polling stations on their own vehicles, it is not always possible for women and they have to depend on public transport. If the polling stations are located in the interiors and far off areas, travel itself becomes a burden. So the Election Commission should at least arrange transport facilities for women,” said Bhuvana Gopalan, a teacher, based in Thanjavur.
Rani Gunaseeli, also a teacher based in Madurai, said women officers should be posted in polling stations located close to their houses. “We have been posted in a village. All four officials in the booth are women. On the polling day, we have to be ready at 5.30 am. There is no restroom facility here. So we are forced to defecate in the open. In villages, we run the risk of waking up at 3 or 4 am and defecate in open fields given of chances of snake bites of animal attacks,” said Gunaseeli.
In the last elections, there were about 64,000 polling booths. This time, however, due to the pandemic and the government’s responsibility to ensure safe polling, the Election Commission of India has added nearly 25,000 booths taking the total polling booths in the state to nearly 89,000.
To meet the workforce requirement for the newly added booths, this time many college lecturers have also been roped in, in addition to school teachers. The lecturers were given three-day training on how to conduct polls. There were reports that suggest most of the participants tried to boycott the training program since they were shown a single video on the polling process repeatedly for the whole day.
“In districts like Salem, the training was provided properly. But more than the training, it is the quality of food that becomes a concern. Since, we are in the midst of a pandemic, most polling officers brought their own food for the next two days. Others had to make their own arrangements on the given location. Since, there is no lunch break for polling officers, the Election Commission could have made some arrangements,” said Murugan, president of Guest Lecturers’ Association.
As per Election Commission rules, polling officials are now allowed to accept food provided by members of any political party.
As per the new guidelines, COVID positive patients are allowed to cast their votes between 6 pm and 7 pm. The polling officers need proper safety gears such as masks, gloves and garbs, but the same has not reached the booths are several locations, rued some.
“We will know only by tonight if the safety gear has reached the polling booths. Besides, though the time for COVID patients is between 6 pm and 7 pm, we expect them to come early, say by 5 pm and wait for their turn. Because of positive patients coming early, the regular voters may shy from reaching the polling booths. This may result in low voter turnout at several places. Why can’t the Election Commission allow COVID patients to cast their vote through postal ballots?” asked PK Ilamaran, president of Tamil Nadu Teachers’ Association.