Where are the women?

At 10.45pm last night I received a phone call, a few actually. I was on the highway, somewhere between Mussoorie and New Delhi. The highlands and dreamy walks were giving way to traffic lights and wedding bands. I had only managed to get over the fact that I wouldn’t wake up to the smell of wet grass, burning wood and lemon/cinnamon chai. On the third attempt, I picked up the phone. At the other end of the phone was a concerned Human Resources employee, his responsibility was to inform me about a letter that was issued in my name and was sent to the University where I work. It was urgent and he stressed a few times that there was no way I could get out of this assignment. By the time I hung up, I was wide awake in the passenger seat. I was ordered to report to a training the following morning by the Election Commission. I was told that I must be ready by 7.30 am and this ‘training’ would take as long as it would take. With no ironed clothes or idea about what I was meant to do at this training, I googled ‘Polling Officer in India’. Moments later, I was fast asleep.

This morning as I found myself amidst men of different ages, build, ethnicity, facial hair ( I could go on), I asked myself – where are the women? It’s a perfectly legitimate question to raise (humor aside). Groggy eyed and very lost, I took my first steps into a village called Mohana (Gohana-Sonipat). There’s a college called Bharat Institute of Technology (BITS) where many confused men were asked to report. All of whom were carrying a piece of paper which essentially summoned them to show up at this address. Most people that were present had come pretty well equipped with handkerchiefs and hand-made fans. The beating heat was absolutely unbearable and there were moments when I thought to myself – I’d much rather play test cricket in the month of May in Sharjah than be in Mohana on this October day.

As my curiosity got the better of me (this happens far too often for my own good), I asked those seated around me – “Bhaisaab, ladies polling officer nahi hai?” (Respected brother, are there no ladies who will serve as polling officers?) Immediately I was singled out as the one who would create a problem with my line of questioning. As time refused to carry on, the minutes seemed like hours. Yet there were no signs of a single woman or a married one or any woman. I took a walk across to the other section where 500 other men were listening diligently to orders being bellowed over a microphone. What was I doing there? How was I even selected to be a part of this? There was chaos, and no one following any kind of instructions. One chap was on an elevated stage, doing his best to read out a memo he prepared. Every five minutes he would request those in the audience to maintain decorum and pay attention. I can’t blame this man but I can’t blame those in the audience too. Catch 22?

There are three large issues that raise alarm bells. First – with the Haryana Assembly elections slated for the 15th of October, why are all these people being trained a week before polling day? Given everyone has a diverse education, learning ability and so on. Second – How many of these people are even interested to be there? I was there because I was summoned and several others said the same. Third – Men and women, they both vote. Where were all the women polling officers? They might have had a separate training scheduled for them but not a single person there addressed my concern.

I have always been very interested in politics. Some of my friends are MLA’s and I have seen firsthand the work that they have put in to get elected. The campaigns, the strategy, the speeches – the works. But, does sitting in a polling booth in a place I haven’t heard of, helping voters vote – interest me? No.

Sure, we must take the call of duty seriously and serve our nation. And that alone is reason for me to show up on time, to learn about the voting machine, mingle with others with experience. But there are so many others who aren’t even interested in politics, let alone working at a polling booth. Who screens the people selected to become polling officers? Clearly no one even asks a polling officer whether he or she is interested to assist with the elections. Imagine the way in which an election will be conducted, full of people who are just asked to show up and figure things out on a hot October day. I put myself in the position of a voter – I imagine going into a booth and the machine not working for whatever reason, what do I do? Who do I go to? To someone else in the room who has been summoned by the Election Commission?

We must raise concern and voice our opinion so that this could be a better process. We must get better training. I don’t know a thing and I am one of 4 people in charge of a polling booth in Baroda (Haryana). My willingness to learn and enthusiasm to help isn’t reason enough for me to be there. My accent was ridiculed as I wasn’t local, my understanding of Haryanvi is limited (and rightly so), and my knowledge of local politics is close to negative.

How do we as citizens of India, improve the process of elections from the point of view of appointing the right people to be inside polling booths? By raising questions and looking for answers from the relevant authorities. If I wasn’t in this position today, I wouldn’t have ever asked such questions.

Where will I be on the 14th and 15th of October? In a semi-urban space in Haryana that I haven’t heard of. Will I give it my 100%? Yes. Will I try and figure out how to run a pooling booth? Yes. Will I do everything in my power to make sure that it’s a fair process? Yes. Will I put my life on the line if someone came in with a gun and tried to capture the booth? Umm. I’ll get back to you with that answer later.

As of the 7th of October, do I know anything about this polling situation? No.

Here’s to Disco Democracy. Keep dancing, we’ll figure it out, someday.

Arjun Puri was born and raised in Kolkata, back when it was still called Calcutta. As a young child he spent time in Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru – before their names changed. His last long-term home was London, and he fully expects it to call itself something else soon. Arjun graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2007 and worked as a banker for 5 years, before he realised it was not for him. Arjun now lives in Delhi and works in the education sector. He loves books, sport, people and travel — and most of all, Leyla, his German Shepherd.