A recent exercise of correcting electoral rolls in the states going to the polls in December by reading aloud or auditing these rolls in ward sabhas in the state has yielded dramatic results. In the State of Rajasthan alone, over 7 Lakh entries were corrected. Over three lakh ninety thousand names were added and over three lakh seven thousand names were deleted, in a speedily conducted exercise.
You can imagine her picture splashed across the newspapers the day after voting. At the reported age of 98, Dallu Natharam Salvi is the face we celebrate of the enthusiastic Indian voter who turns up to cast a vote undeterred by age or infirmity. But come polling day on 1st December 2004, and Dallu would have had a rude shock in store for her. She would have been told that she could not vote because her name was not on the electoral rolls of her polling booth at Vijaypura. Due to some error at the time revision not just Dallu but some 20 others of her small ward in Vijaypura panchayat of the Bhim assembly constituency in Rajasthan would have found that their names had been left out, and they had effectively been denied their right to vote.
Regardless of citizenship, ration card, and all other identities, the sacrosanct right to vote is dependent on your name being on the electoral rolls of your area. And like Dallu, lakhs of Indian citizens are denied their right to vote because their names are not on the voting lists of their areas. The election commission has a detailed and seemingly comprehensive set of instructions to periodically revise and verify electoral rolls. Despite this, surveys conducted by organizations engaged in electoral reform like LokSatta in Andhra Pradesh and the Association for Democratic reforms from Ahmedabad have estimated incorrect entries in electoral rolls to be as high as 30-40 % in urban areas, and 15-20% in rural areas. The election commission acknowledges that this is an area of great concern. The challenge has been to find the means of comprehensively revising electoral rolls with adequate safeguard mechanisms to ensure that this process is not misused by one party or the other to add bogus names, and keep political opponents out.
Speaking in a consultation of citizens groups, government officials, the election commission, and political parties on citizens participation in the electoral process at Jaipur on 17th July 2003, Indias Chief Election Commissioner Mr. James Lyngdoh said that despite the best efforts of the commission and numerous electoral roll revision campaigns, the task remained unfinished. In the meeting organised by the by the National Campaign for the Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) and the State Institute of Public Administration, he said the commission came to joint consultations like the one in Jaipur to look for suggestions to make such campaigns more successful.
One of the suggestions that had been made by citizens groups in Rajasthan, was a simple idea borrowed from the experience of the states active right to information campaign. The proposal was to use the platform of ward sabhas and gram sabhas to have the electoral rolls read out aloud in public, and correct entries based on the resolutions passed. This exercise was expected to have several advantages. In a state like Rajasthan with a low literacy rate, reading lists aloud have a special advantage. The ward sabha is a democratic institution with legal sanctity that has been used to hold public audits of development works. It has proved its viability to verify public information in a transparent and inclusive manner. In fact, all the stakeholders at the meeting supported the suggestion. What needed to be seen was whether this operation could be translated into a massive and workable ca mpaign.
There are over 100,000 wards in Rajasthan. It was clear that the whole exercise would have to be run as a campaign, with voter lists and forms being made available to every ward across the state. Competent officials would have to be deputed for each ward sabha. With adequate publicity people could get a chance to attend meetings in close proximity to their homes and collectively look at the voting list. This would give the voters a chance to check the correctness of their own entries, as well as those of their family members and acquaintances in the area. The apprehension of wrong entries was to be dealt with by a two fold set of safeguards. First, the format of an open public hearing prevents the manipulation of adding or deleting names in secrecy. In any case, the existing procedural safe guards under the Representation of Peoples Act f or verification of applications would still be used at the time of scrutiny and processing the applications made during the ward sabha.
The Chief Electoral Officer of Rajasthan, Mr. Lalit Kothari along with some other officials had said that the suggestion certainly had potential, but there did not seem to be enough time to make the requisite preparations for carrying out such a massive exercise. The meeting ended with no final decision about when the ward sabha verification process would come into effect, and whether it could be used before the upcoming state assembly elections at the end of the year. If anything, it seemed as if the procedure would be adopted after the vidhan sabha elections, in time for the Lok Sabha elections in 2004.
The strong and comprehensive set of orders that came from the election commission about a month later was a clear indication of how important the scrutiny of electoral rolls was for the commission. The detailed orders laid out the procedures to be followed for both rural and urban areas, in all the five states going to the polls by the end of the year. The process was to be completed by the 15th of September. The lack of an equivalent urban institution for the ward sabha or gram sabha was to be compensated for by holding meetings at every polling booth, taking the help and support of resident welfare associations, neighbourhood groups, and NGOs. The orders encouraged the Chief Electoral Officers to provide copies of the voter lists to all NGOs operating in the area so that they could help residents scrutinize the lists and recommend changes.
The Rajasthan Government had issued somewhat similar orders for verification of the Panchayat electoral rolls, based on an earlier representation to the Government. However, these orders were very poorly implemented, with negligible publicity, and many districts had no idea that any such orders even existed.
The seriousness with which orders of the election commission are treated was evident in the contrasting efficiency with which the election commission orders were put into effect. There were comprehensive guidelines and instructions issued in Rajasthan. The orders were well publicized, and sufficient numbers of officials were assigned duties to organize and attend ward sabha meetings between the 25th of August and the 1st of September. The processing of the applications were to take place after the 1st, so that the revised list would be ready by the 15th of September. There were press releases from various district headquarters publicizing the ward sabhas. Copies of electoral rolls and application forms for correcting electoral rolls were made available to every Patwari and Panchayat Secretary in the State.
Given the paucity of time, and the very strong safeguards in place to prevent manipulation, the huge number of corrections made are a great achievement. However, observations and efforts by citizens groups in some pockets show how much more effective such an effort could be. Although NGOs and citizens groups were not really involved by district authorities, several citizens groups took their own initiative to get involved. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) asked its activists and members to monitor the process in their own area in Central Rajasthan
Election Commission order
In Rawatmaal and Devata Panchayats of Ajmer District, similar perfunctory ward sabhas were held to which local residents objected, before corrections were made. In Vijaypura Panchayat where Dallu lives, the ward member of ward No 3 Kalu Ram said that on 29th of August the Patwari came to him in his home in Narayanji Ka Beeda and asked him to call 1 or 2 people so that they could go through the list and make corrections. Kalu Ram insisted a ward sabha meeting be held. He also insisted that the Patwari go and bring the requisite forms so that they could be filled signed, and submitted. As a result of that 20 names were added, 4 names were deleted, and 10 applications were submitted for correction of entries. Kalu Ram insisted on ward sabhas being held in his presence in the neighboring wards also, where the Patwari said the process had been completed. In
Likewise, in Phutiya Ka Thad 15 names were added including 58 year old Puran Singh, and 40 year old Lakshman Singh and his wife Chandra Devi. 8 names were deleted, and 6 names were located with the wrong address. In Sangrampura, proposals were made for eight deletions, and as many as 51 additions. Many covered people who had voted before, but had inadvertently got left out during revisions.
These examples indicate that the numbers of potential corrections are even more startling than the results have shown. The need for safeguards have also resulted in many valid voters names not being added. Apart from the requirement of revenue department officials counter signing forms based on a complete investigation before names could be added, applicants had to sign the forms themselves. This requirement excluded many eligible voters who for some reason were not present at the ward sabhas to sign the forms.
In Sangawas Panchayat where ward sabha meetings were properly conducted, the secretary of the Panchayat has made a record of 248 eligible names to be added in the electoral rolls and 22 names to be deleted based on ward sabha resolutions. These were names of people missing from the rolls as identified by friends, family members and neighbours. However, the Patwari records that only 38 applications were received for names to be added and 11 for names to be deleted. In other words only 1/6th of the potential names that could have been added, were even considered because they were the ones who presented personally signed application forms.
Reports from other civil society groups informally monitoring this process in Bikaner, Baran, and Udaipur Districts also confirm that really effective ward sabha meetings were held where citizens groups took an interest. While the Government issued firm orders for Patwaris and Gram Sewaks to hold and conduct the ward sabhas, in most cases they only visited the ward and made corrections based on the few people they managed to meet and few applications they managed to get filled and signed.
Reports from other States also indicate that this exercise will have to be regularized and awareness about it built up. Civil society groups like Parivartan in Delhi have documented the additional difficulties of carrying out such an operation in an urban area where the sense of community and detailed knowledge about ones neighbours is missing. Nevertheless, where Parivartan did make an intensive effort to hold meetings with the support of Resident Welfare Associations, large numbers of bogus names were identified and deleted, while many eligible voters managed to have their names included.
All election watch campaigns begin with ensuring the voters right to vote. They also emphasise that this is only a first step in encouraging the active participation of the citizen in the whole electoral process. The apathy towards the electoral process is one of the biggest threats it can face. Incorrect electoral rolls will ensure both cynicism and apathy.
The correction of 7 lakh entries in Rajasthan is an achievement for the election watch process, the election commission and the administrative machinery. While it is the duty of the administrative machinery to carry out such a massive exercise, it is the duty of citizens groups to ensure a transparent and participatory process. Monitoring the process has given many indications of how it is a job that has only begun. Election watch groups, as well as the Election Commission will have to ensure this process is improved and acted on, for without the right to vote, other electoral reforms will always seem like window dressing.