Conducting elections in hilly areas with unpredictable weather is never easy. With just a day to go before elections, the temperature dipped owing to snowfall and rain in different parts of Himachal. It has also made certain areas inaccessible. The higher reaches of Himachal Pradesh are wrapped in snow while the lower hills were lashed by rain. How is the Election Commission dealing with these challenges? How will it ensure that close to 56 lakh voters including youngsters, elderly and disabled population is be able to cast their votes without any hiccups.
In an exclusive interview with The New Indian’s Assistant Editor Urvashi Khona, Himachal’s Chief Election Officer Maneesh Garg answers questions on the state’s preparedness for election day, the enthusiasm among young voters and why there were record seizure of alcohol, cash and drugs this poll season.
Excerpts from the interview.
Urvashi Khona: What are the arrangements and preparations done for tomorrow especially as hilly terrains and some parts covered by a blanket of snow?
Maneesh Garg: All the polling parties have been dispatched. The polling stations will be set up before evening today. Himachal received snowfall in the high reaches and also in upper parts of Shimla and Mandi. We have made some advance arrangements for placing the road clearing machinery like JCB. We have been able to clear all roads in time. Yesterday, the movement of polling parties took place smoothly and they could reach polling stations on time.
Urvashi Khona: What are the details of polling stations, number of voters this time?
Maneesh Garg: We have 7,884 polling stations and 55 lakhs 92 thousand voters. We have 412 candidates who will be contesting.
Urvashi Khona: How about inaccessible booths?
Maneesh Garg: We have provided Assured Minimum facilities (AMF) at all polling stations which includes facilities like electricity, drinking water supplies, toilets for men and women and ramps for elderly and specially-abled voters. We have also requested NSS and NCC volunteers to be present at polling booth. They will be assisting voters in reaching booths in case of any inaccessibility. Wheelchairs have also been placed in all polling booths to help people in need for loco-mobility.
Urvashi Khona: Remarkable increase in women voters and youth is seen. If you can share data.
Maneesh Garg: Electoral gender ratio is 981 as compared to the census ratio of 976. We have seen good registration of women voters. As far as age group of 18-19 is concerned, we have seen a massive jump in registration from 46 percent of projected population to 77 percent of projected population within a short time of two months. We have seen a lot of enthusiasm particularly among women and youth.
Urvashi Khona: How are you ensuring that maximum number of people come out to vote?
Maneesh Garg: In the month of July and August, we initiated the awareness program called it “UTSAV” which stands for Universal Transparent Elections Through Systematic Awareness of Voters. So we launched this program on 27th July. Thereafter, we undertook various initiatives like activating various literacy clubs in all education institutions, chunaav pathshalas in rural areas.
We also went and visited several voters in different categories like elderly, above 80 people. On 2nd October we conducted gram sabhas in the state. In all the gram sabhas the agenda of electoral participation and electoral roles was discussed. We have made interesting songs on elections. One has been made by police band Harmony of Pines, very popular now a days in which we have conveyed the message of electoral participation in different dialects of Himachal.
We have also prepared a song targeting youth and urban population which sort of nudges them to come out and not just remain busy with phones, games and whatsApp. All our hoardings and posters give the message that this is not a holiday for picnic.
It is a once-in-a-five-year-festival that all should celebrate together.
In addition we launched mission 277 that targeted the 277 polling stations that had low voter turnout in last assembly polls. And we had a targeted approach with our officers visiting them and motivating the voters there. Online election quiz was organized in which one lakh citizens of Himachal participated. We also identified 11 low voter turnout constituencies and had special interactions with them. Various kinds of activities were undertaken apart from creating regular jingles and putting up posters.
Urvashi Khona: Why are the seizures made in HP are so high this election season?
Maneesh Garg: Yes we have made rigorous checking and enforcement this time due to which seizures have gone five times higher as compared to last time. If in the last Vidhan Sabha, we recovered items worth Rs 10 crores in value, this time around it was Rs 50 crores. We were able to enforce code of conduct in a better way this time. I believe that’s why the seizures high.