BY PARVIN SULTANA
In the recently held Assembly Elections of Assam, the Election Commission gave directions to have a number of all women polling booths and model booths in different constituencies. These all women polling booths were supposed to have all female polling officers complete with women police personnel as well. I got the opportunity to work as a Presiding Officer of one such polling booth in Dhubri.
On getting a call from the office of the Assistant Commissioner of Dhubri, Chayanika Thakuria a few weeks before the elections, I understood that I will be selected for election duty. While the general mood among women polling officials is often to get their duty cancelled, just six months in my job, I looked forward to it as something new. Once being given the recruitment letter, our training started. While the set up of training looked a little intimidating in the beginning, the Master Trainers did a good job and simplified the entire procedure for our better understanding.
The confusion of the first day of training was cleared when we were made to practice on the spot. We were also given enough literature to go through in order to have a better idea of the election procedure. While conducting elections, the most potent tool of democracy, is a big responsibility, with rigorous training and enough support from the administration, it seemed less daunting. It was rather a euphoric experience.
Once our specific teams were formed, I had a talk with my polling officials and was assured that we will dispose our duties well. A day before the date of voting we all gathered at the Govt Boys Higher Secondary School. The polling officials shared a light breakfast along with some light banter. The mood was already jubilant. All set to do something new, we went to our specific counters to collect materials required for elections. The District Library of Dhubri turned into a sea of human beings with polling officials lining in their specific counters. As there was no separate counter for the women’s team, we had to wait our turn along with the other men.
After waiting for almost 40 minutes, we were handed over the material. The officials in charge of handing over the materials explained to us the money we have been given and the receipt that we have to return. We were given a large number of folders along with stationery and the relevant seals that will be required during voting. We were also given a check list and asked to ensure that everything mentioned in the check list has been given.
We moved back towards our earlier place and started checking whether the machine was working well or not. Tallying the innumerable envelopes and the materials given with the checklist was a time taking and tedious job. This is crucial because in case something is missing, we will be provided immediately from the counter and not anytime later. After finishing the checking we were asked to have lunch.
Having had lunch we moved towards our specific accommodation. As all the three women teams had polling stations in Dhubri and Gauripur, arrangements were made for our stay in the Guest House of the Sikh temple. The beautiful and historic structure stood on the bank of the mighty Brahmaputra. We moved to our respective quarters and after freshening up we left for preparing our polling station. We left two of our polling officials with the materials in the guest house while three of us went to the polling station.
As this was a new initiative, the enthusiasm was obvious. At the polling station we were greeted by the BLO of that area. He assured us that he will help us in every possible way. We also asked him to buy some rope and bamboo to prepare the entrance way of the polling station. The security personnel present there assured that they will do the needful the next day. The administration also engaged a decorator to decorate the polling station. Balloons and frilly clothes were used to decorate the benches and table meant for the Presiding officer.
After setting up the polling station and putting up necessary notices in different places we made our way back to the guest house. As it was a rather hot day, we took a break of half an hour and then along with our respective teams we started preparation of the work for the next day. I sat with the polling officials of my team and explained to them their respective duty. As this was a first time for all of us, we were both excited and nervous. In the training we were told to finish as much paperwork as possible in the previous night. While it was a tedious job, once finished it gave us free time for the next day.
As all the women polling officials were staying at the same place, it actually seemed like a picnic. We all had food together amidst much laughter. The beautiful serene Brahmaputra and the breeze had a soothing effect in the hot and humid night. We retired to bed at around midnight as we had to start early the next day. I woke up at 3.30 in the morning and woke others as well. After taking bath we all got ready for the big day. Our vehicle was ready and along with the administrative officials we left for the polling stations at 5 a.m. We reached at around 5.20 and started setting up the voting machines.
After doing the stipulated mock poll and other formalities, we started the poll exactly at 7. As it was a hot day, the voters made their way to the polling station early. Keeping with the other preparations, we were provided with toffees to be given to the voters and the children who accompanied them. Voting went well without any problems and we got over at around 4 p.m. The polling station also saw a good turn-out of voters – close to 80%. Many non-voters dropped in just to see a polling station run by all woman team.
We finished the remaining paper work and made our way back to District Library where we were supposed to submit the materials. It was again a very long queue. After two days of hectic work, everyone was in a hurry to be released from their duty. After waiting for an hour we were able to submit our materials and be released. We all felt a sense of relief and satisfaction of a job being well done.
This new initiative of the Election Commission should be seen as one step further towards women empowerment and gender equality. While we often heard that women are not given election duty, I do remember that my grandmother has also worked as a polling official some four decades back. After that while women were recruited as polling officials, for the first time all women polling teams were recruited. And gladly it went well. It felt excellent in being able to do our work at par with our male counterparts and do it well. In a patriarchal society, this is a crucial step towards breaking new grounds and challenging stereotypical beliefs that there are many jobs women cannot do. It infused a sense of confidence in the women polling officials and a sense of respect and awe in the voters.
As a feminist I believe that giving women equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities will improve the overall systems of providing safety and security to the polling teams. In a state where election in certain areas continues to be precarious, this is very much required. At last I would like to thank the district administration of Dhubri for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this new experiment from which I learned a lot and it further strengthened my faith in democracy.