Abdul Rahmat, 28, from Kolkata was shocked and confused when his application for enrolment in the electoral rolls was rejected with the comment “not an Indian citizen”. Born in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, he had moved to the city a decade ago and held a white-collar job with an Indian corporate house. “Our family has lived here for generations. It feels odd to have my name struck off the voters list with this comment,” he told Frontline over the phone.
Kailasa Sandeep of Hyderabad, belonging to a backward caste, works with an international automotive company. Born and brought up in Karimnagar, he found the names of half his family left out of the electoral rolls in the run-up to the general election this year. A conscientious citizen, he had kept the authorities informed about any change in personal details like address or phone number and was baffled when his application was rejected with the comment “not an Indian citizen”. He pursued the matter doggedly until his name was finally added back in the rolls. But not every citizen is equally aware of, or insistent on ensuring, their democratic rights. The names of his brother and wife were not added back to the rolls, and they may not be able to vote in the upcoming election, given the limited time left for the Election Commission (E.C.) to act.
The right to vote is an important prerogative of a citizen in a democracy. Shockingly, in the past few months it was found that crores of Indians were no longer eligible to vote. While the problem of names missing from the electoral rolls might not be new, the extent of the problem in this election is alarming. A large chunk of those disenfranchised overnight belong to communities that have suffered under the present regime and are unlikely to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In a tightly contested election where both the BJP and the opposition are desperate to secure a victory, the possibility of foul play cannot be ruled out. The unasked question that even political parties are afraid to raise is whether the BJP is orchestrating a targeted removal of communities at the booth level to ensure a win for itself.
In Maharashtra, the application of 24-year-old Rukhsarbi Qarim Shaikh (name changed) for enrolment in the voters list was rejected by the E.C. with the comment “invalid age”. Born in 1995, she is very much eligible for voting in a country where the minimum age for enfranchisement is 18. Hers was not the only case for rejection on such untenable grounds. Khalid Saifullah, a software engineer whose company, Raylab Technologies, devised a phone application called Missing Voters to identify the names absent in the voters list and have them registered with the E.C., said: “We came across more than 50 women in Maharashtra who were rejected like this when they applied for inclusion in the voters list through our app.” .
Last month, the No Voter Left Behind campaign revealed that the names of 12 crore Indians were missing from the electoral rolls, of which three crore were Muslims and four crore were Dalits. Women were the third category to face mass disenfranchisement. The campaigners surveyed 800 Assembly constituencies in all the States except Kerala, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir and the north-eastern States and conducted field surveys in 10 of those constituencies.
They compared two data sets—the household size report of the Census and the E.C. data on the latest electoral rolls. According to the Census data, there were fewer than 5 per cent single-member households in 2011. The surveyors converted the E.C. data from an image format to text and then the Excel format and created a report similar to the Census one. They found that the number of single-member households in the E.C. data came to 10 per cent. Going by the religion criterion, they found that among Muslims, 17 per cent were single-member households. Comparing the Census and E.C. data, they detected a problem in 12 per cent of the households. With the help of non-governmental organisations and individuals, the group set out to verify the data. When the volunteers went from door to door, they found people who had voter ID cards and had voted in the 2014 elections but their names were missing from the voters list. There seemed to be mischief in the way the names of people from certain social backgrounds had gone missing from the electoral rolls. The surveyors concluded that the laxity of block-level officials could enable misuse of existing provisions of the E.C. in order to benefit political parties.
“Through Form 20, anyone can visit a polling booth and find out which political party got how many votes. Local politicians who have been given the duty to manage the booth can identify some households in the area and on their behalf give an application for Form 7, which is to remove the names from the electoral rolls. As soon as someone fills a Form 7, booth level officers of the E.C. are supposed to visit their address to verify the facts. But since booth level officers are not full-time employees, work does not happen in an authenticated manner, and we found that sometimes names get removed,” said Khalid Saifullah.
The States with the highest number of discrepancies and voters left out of the rolls are Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Wherever possible, the campaign volunteers are also trying to enrol new voters, said Amanullah Khalid, one of the campaigners. “In Bareilly, in half a day, we managed to enrol more than 50 new voters,” he said. Around 7,000 voters were added to the electoral rolls in Uttar Pradesh with the help of the app. Emphasising the seriousness of the problem, Amanullah told Frontline a survey of 100 houses in the Lucknow Cantonment constituency in a single day revealed that the names of 33 people who had voter ID cards were missing from the rolls. Most of the disenfranchised were Muslims.
In Maharashtra, an estimated 39,27,882 names, 4.6 per cent of the electorate, were missing, and a large chunk of these people were Dalits. In the two-part study, the group compared the latest Maharashtra Electoral list and the Census of India data along with sample field surveys in Nagpur South West, Nagpur South, Katol and Nanded North constituencies. They cross-verified a random sample of single-individual households through the Maharashtra State Election Commission portal through their “Family Search” function. After analysing the Census data on household sizes and comparing them with data from the electoral list, the surveyors found that the number of single-member households was inflated in the latter. They conducted further field studies to develop estimates of missing voters in Dalit communities. In just four Assembly constituencies that they surveyed, 646 names of eligible Dalit voters were missing from a total of 1,106 households.
The campaigners said: “The average voter number per Dalit household in Maharashtra is 2.9, which makes for an estimated 3,207 eligible Dalit voters in the four constituencies. The number 646 translates to 20.1 per cent of the eligible Dalit voters in these constituencies. Dalits constitute nearly 10.2 per cent of the total population. Therefore, the estimated number of voters from Dalit communities in the State should be 86.59 lakh. However, going by the survey results in four constituencies where 20.1 per cent of the Dalits were found missing, an estimated 17.31 lakh Dalits may be missing from the electoral rolls of Maharashtra. In addition, in two other constituencies, Nagpur SW and Nagpur S, where field testing was conducted in 710 households, it was found that people with valid voter cards did not feature in the electoral rolls. This means that the names of eligible and genuine voters were deleted at some point by the authorities. In these two constituencies, a total of 43 (or 2 per cent of total voters) can be classified as deleted eligible voters.”
The first survey took place in Gujarat, where in 16 Assembly constituencies the BJP won with a margin of fewer than 3,000 votes in the last election. In Godhra, where a train was burnt in 2002 triggering violence in which thousands of Muslims were killed, raped or displaced, the BJP had a winning margin of only 258 votes. It was found that in 1,800 Muslim households, there was only one Muslim voter. This made the campaigners alert and they conducted door-to-door surveys. That was the first time that they realised how political parties could exploit the loopholes in the system to tamper with elections.
Amanullah Khalid said that while larger political exigencies led to the malpractice, the E.C.’s administrative failure was also to blame. “The business of the E.C. is to ensure that each and every individual gets a voter card. Whether the citizen votes after that is not its problem. Here, I have serious concerns with the process of the E.C. Firstly, the E.C. gives an advertisement in the newspapers. We all know the extent of illiteracy in the country and the reach of newspapers. So a lot of people do not even get to know about the ad. Secondly, the ad asks people to come to the E.C. This is called ‘pull approach’. It is a known fact that if we are expecting people to come to get the benefits, then that’s not going to happen. Many of them are illiterate, many work from morning until night; even if they go they are unsure of what documents to take along. Instead of calling them, the E.C. should send its executives to households. For water and electricity bills, someone comes home with a machine and gives the bills. Why can’t the same thing happen at least before the elections? Why can’t an E.C. official visit the house and check the particulars? This is not a huge operation. When with a limited capacity, and with the help of volunteers working in different fields, we could build this app, which has helped 50,000 people so far to get voter ID cards, why can’t the E.C. do the same?”
During the Karnataka election last year, when the problem of missing voters cropped up, campaigners had got over 12 lakh voters enrolled in just one week. Khalid added that the E.C. must take responsibility for the discrepancies and announce a one-week intensive enrolment with staffing at all polling booths to solve the problem.
Since the election dates were announced, the Raylab Technologies app saw a spike in activity with 1,30,184 people downloading it. One of the campaigners, Shafaq, said that the E.C. should take note of these problems soon and take action to prevent the disenfranchisement of a large number of people because the first phase of polling starts on April 11. He added that people using Android or Apple phones could use the app. “The app quickly finds from very minimum data inputs whether a person is registered as a voter or not and simultaneously allows the voter himself or volunteers to fill in the required form and submit it in the App on his/her behalf. The backend team of RayLab then uploads the form on the E.C. website along with the required documents for obtaining a voter ID.” The increased vigilance in some constituencies had reduced the rate of exclusion of names, he said. But it was not enough to stop the malpractice altogether. For that, the E.C. would have to strengthen its processes.