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India General Elections 2024: ‘We were treated like bonded labour’

Updated on: 23 May,2024 06:55 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Vinod Kumar Menon |

Even as those who couldn’t vote in Mumbai’s voting mess remain disappointed, stories now emerge of inhuman conditions for even polling officers

India General Elections 2024: ‘We were treated like bonded labour’

Large queues were seen at the St John’s Convent High School polling booth at Mumbra. Pic/Satej Shinde

The recent deaths of two election duty personnel, a police constable at Dadar strong room and a 55-year-old returning officer at Parel, have raised concerns among election staff. They feel they have been treated unfairly, likening their experience to bonded labour, with insufficient training and unrealistic expectations. The Election Commission of India (ECI) should consider exempting employees with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, they said. 

A source said, “We were informed about election duty less than a month before the election and were directed to join the training session, which was held in a school in the eastern suburbs. Training provided was inadequate peppered with warnings about being suspended or sent to jail for any mistake or error. A huge amount of information had to be absorbed in a short period of time in two training sessions.”

CISF officials control residents at the TMC English Medium School polling booth. Pic/Satej ShindeCISF officials control residents at the TMC English Medium School polling booth. Pic/Satej Shinde

"The BMC school serving as a polling station was in poor condition, with dirty toilets and rats. Election duty personnel had to work for two consecutive days without breaks, with inadequate food and refreshments. Water was provided, but that's all we had. The procedures at the dispatch centre and collection centre were lengthy, exhausting, and dragged on past midnight,” said the source.

Insensitive superiors

"Election officials, including zonal officers, polling booth staff, and observers, lacked proper training, and provided incorrect information inconsistent with their training, causing delays and confusion over two exhausting days. They were insensitive, shouting orders regardless of the age, status, or gender of duty staff. Furthermore, individuals with pre-existing health conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and chronic digestive issues, were disregarded, expected to fulfill duties in extreme heat without basic amenities, exacerbating their suffering,” said the source.

James John, AGNI, Nitai Mehta, Founder Trustee, Praja Foundation and Dr Mahesh Chavan,  consulting endocrinologistJames John, AGNI, Nitai Mehta, Founder Trustee, Praja Foundation and Dr Mahesh Chavan,  consulting endocrinologist

First-person account

“On the eve of polling I got less than three hours sleep. I readied the booth by 12.30 am but wasn't allowed to leave. With no facilities, I sat for eight hours straight, barely eating and without a bathroom break. At the collection centre, I had a panic attack and was prescribed medication, yet still wasn't allowed to leave. It wasn't until I pleaded with the returning officer that I was finally allowed to go home. Later, a zonal officer scolded meover the telephone for not filling out a form, despite my medical condition. I'm currently undergoing treatment and cannot communicate with anyone,” said a woman polling staffer, who requested anonymity.

Experts weigh in

The election staff's training has focused on 'Scare and Inspire,' leading to apprehension as any mistake could lead to arrests, adding to the stress in an already tense era. Instead of being empowering, the training has been authoritative and distressing. Election sites, like the one at Maruti school in MIDC where I voted, should be well-lit and equipped with fans, especially considering the prevalence of lifestyle diseases. It's crucial to select younger, healthier, and more welcoming sites, rather than burdening workers with uncomfortable conditions,” said Dr Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist, whose friend was on polling duty and had a traumatic experience.

"The festival of democracy and the world's largest elections require immense effort, often under harsh conditions. The Election Commission should prioritise the well-being of those involved, ensuring provisions like food, water, toilets, and suitable working environments. While participation is mandatory, efforts should be made to make it more humane. A feedback mechanism should be established to prevent the recurrence of such conditions, ensuring that everyone involved, including those behind the scenes, can truly celebrate this festival of Indiaz" said Nitai Mehta, Founder Trustee, Praja Foundation

Dr Mahesh Chavan, a consulting endocrinologist said, “Currently, 15 to 20 per cent of the population deals with diabetes and related lifestyle issues like hypertension. Stress, often underestimated, poses serious health risks, particularly in demanding situations like elections. Additionally, increasing humidity raises the likelihood of electrolyte imbalances, potentially triggering sudden heart irregularities and cardiac emergencies.

James John, AGNI, Andheri East said, “It is unfortunate that those working behind the curtains had to go through a challenges. High time the ECI provides basic infrastructure and treats staffers in a dignified manner. Hope the chief electoral officer of the state, will take corrective steps to rectify this in the future ”
Health examination a must.

"Emergency duties, whether executive or supervisory, should require health examinations. With the emergence of long COVID-19, individuals over 55 with chronic illnesses should be excluded. Post-COVID-19, cardiac issues have risen, affecting even vaccinated individuals. Consequently, all emergency duties, including elections, should assess staff health, with younger individuals screened and others following standard procedures. Providing basic medical care, including an on-call doctor and ambulance for polling booths should be within the 'golden hour' of a medical emergency," said Dr. Subhash Hira, Global Health Professor at the University of Washington and WHO pandemic panel member.

Other side

Manohar Parkar, Deputy Secretary and Joint CEO (Chief Electoral Officer), State of Maharashtra, “We have not received any complaint so far. We will look into such complaints, once received, and will take appropriate steps, to ensure that the same is not happening again. Already clear directives are issued in writing on do’s and don’ts.” 

Age of an on-duty official who died

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