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Chanllanges For Rural Poll

Bhubaneswar: Besides education and livelihood, the COVID-19 pandemic has also shaken the democratic fabrics of Odisha and India as well. The elections are the building blocks of democratic infrastructure across the country, but the pandemic has come as a major challenge to renewing the democratic bodies – rural, urban, assembly or parliamentary. There is no alternative to elections for giving shape to the essential democratic process. The bottom line is that we have to live with the COVID-19 as nobody knows when or if, it will end or when the next variant will hit mankind. Thus, like other activities, the elections also need to be managed for the survival of the democracy.

Since arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of elections have taken place the world over. In India as in Odisha, we have faced elections. The by-elections to Pipili assembly segment was held amid the Covid scare and it could be managed successfully while adhering the protocols. This time, the election is being held in large scale for the three-tier Panchyati Raj Institutions (PRI).

No doubt, holding elections at this juncture is a big challenge as DGP Sunil Kumar Bansal said after attending a high level meeting with the State Election Commissioner, Odisha Aditya Prasad Padhi. While challenges are galore, it is not impossible to overcome the crisis if the people adhere to the guidelines set by the State Election Commission.

When people conduct marriages and funerals amid the pandemic, then why not the elections? It is high time that the people should consider every polling booth as a venue for marriage and cast vote as they attend the functions. As the SEC has extended the duration of voting by one hour, the elections can also be managed with discipline amid the Covid pandemic.

Election during Covid has also an additional advantage of not having public campaigning, rallies, road shows and even victory processions. This will substantially reduce the violence which has become part of elections now-a-days. The expenditure of candidates will be less as there will be no public meeting and unnecessary extravagance.

However, it is high time that the planners and policymakers should evolve the special system for conducting free and fair elections in e-mode as the virtual examinations and even major interviews are being held today.

There are three options for this; one is in-person voting or remote voting through e-voting or postal ballots. In theory e-voting or postal ballots may sound safer but they are very difficult to implement in practice on a large scale in India.

Major technology issues, connectivity issues and identity issues come in the way of e-voting in a state like Odisha. It may be possible in an urban setting. But even then identity issues will be very difficult to resolve. Aadhar-linked voting may be a solution, but maybe will take a decade from now when mobile internet services are universally available and dependable in the remotest places like cut off areas of Malkangiri or the hills of Koraput or the Similipal sanctuary.

Postal ballot can safely be ruled out as the postal system simply doesn’t have the capacity to deal with so many burdens within such a short span of time and there too identity is an issue as is confidentiality.

In absence of two other options, we are now left with only one mode which is in-person voting. Therefore, vaccination, masking, social distancing and hand sanitising are the most effective tools against Covid and basically these will be our tools to conduct the elections. In Covid pandemic situation the real friend is N-95 Mask, which protects us from virus in a big way, said a Public Health expert.

Guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India (ECI) and followed by the State Election Commission (SEC) as well, appear to be sufficient to hold elections in the face of what appears to be a less dangerous virus – Omicorn. However, the weak and vulnerable must of course take more precautions.

The people as sensible citizens should cooperate with the SEC and come forward with in-person voting by following the protocol, urged the Election Commission. Here, the State Government too has a major role and regulating the people with stringent and exemplary action under the Disaster Management Act is necessary in case of violations, to set the trend for an election which is safe.

During pandemic it is also a major concern about the health safety of over one lakh personnel, those who will be engaged in election process. While the State Government has assured vaccination of both the doses and even booster doses for these personnel, however, concern continues to haunt the SEC on the issue of health of these electoral personnel. It is a major challenge.

Similarly the vote counting process appears to be one of the most difficult areas to manage because of the number of persons who are involved in the process in order to make it more transparent. It will also be a prolonged process of three days of close contact.

Anyway, beginning with the government machineries to political parties, candidates and individual voters, all must come to one platform and understand the situation. It is not unusual for the peace loving and law-abiding people of Odisha to make the ensuing panchayat elections, a success. The people in general have major responsibilities this time. One is to elect a good candidate for the post of ward member, sarpanch, samiti member and Zilla Parishad member, but also cooperate with the SEC to establish democracy in the grass-root level. It’s a very fragile situation for the state as well as for the people in general.

Elections in India are also narrated as the festival of democracy and the polling for the rural polls is more colourful as it happens in villages. This time round, this festival of democracy may be low key as major celebration like Lord Jagannath’s Rath Jatra was held sans devotees. There may not be massive campaign in the nook and corner of the state, but democracy must be renewed strengthened with people’s support who will certainly defeat the evil design of pandemic to stall the elections, pointed