MUMBAI : On Monday, Ruchita Dalal cast her vote after 12 years. When the 30-year-old disabled voter reached the polling centre at Fatima High School in Malad around 8 am, a wheelchair was already waiting for her. Through a separate entrance, three volunteers helped her reach a ground-floor corridor booth, meant exclusively for physically challenged voters.
“I feel satisfied. I am finally able to participate in the democratic process,” Dalal said. In 2009 and 2014 Assembly elections, despite reaching the polling centre, Dalal could not cast her vote due to the lack of facilities for disabled voters.
Five months ago during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Dalal said, the booth at the same centre was located on the first floor. There were no ramp, no lift and no volunteers. A plastic chair was available instead, she says. Dalal had then returned without casting her vote. But last week, the Election Commission of India (ECI) assured her that all facilities were in place this time.
To ensure maximum turnout of disabled voters in the Assembly elections – Maharashtra has 3.9 lakh registered physically challenged voters – the ECI ensured that most polling centres in the state have ramps. It has also shifted several polling booths to ground floors for easy access. Wheelchairs were also made available at most centres.
Nilesh Purohit, a booth-level officer in Veera Desai, said they got a wooden ramp constructed even for a flight of two to three steps this time. “In the past there were no ramps. Elderly people faced problem climbing up and down,” he said.
At Andheri West’s St Catherine High School, a wooden ramp was constructed outside the polling station over an uneven road to aid senior citizens and six registered physically disabled voters. “A van for pick-up and drop is bringing these people near the ramp. From there we are taking to the booth on wheelchair,” a polling office said.
Apart from wooden ramps and wheelchairs, this time more student volunteers aided voters. At Millat High School, where the polling booth was on the first floor, students were seen helping senior citizens to climb stairs.
At some centres, voters, however, continued to complain of poor facility. Sunil Gaonkar, who cast his vote at Borivali East’s municipal school on 5th Kasturba Road, said the ramp inclination was so steep that his wheelchair could not be easily moved. “I had to take my office peon with me to vote. Volunteers did not help me,” the polio-affected 52-year-old man said. His wife, also polio affected, has stopped going to vote. “She feels bad that she needs several people to help cast her vote. So she has stopped going,” he said.
At Scholar’s School in Colaba, which had three polling booths, many senior citizens complained of difficulty in climbing the steep stairs to reach EVMs, even though they were on the ground floor. Jean Waghela, an 82-year-old resident of Strand Cinema area who uses a walker, was not given a wheelchair and had to be assisted by her son to the booth. “There were 5-7 steep steps to reach the booth. No arrangement was made for a wheelchair or any other assistance to reach the booth,” Niranjan, her son said.
The EC had changed the venues of several booths to make them accessible for persons with disabilities and senior citizens. Niranjan, however, said that at the Colaba school, which has been a polling booth for the past three decades, the issue of improper access had remained unaddressed. “We had given feedback about the lack of access, but the issue continues. Other voters also said that arrangements of vehicles for senior citizens and persons with disabilities was not done,” he said.