Election duty offers a reality check

Recently, five Indian states went to the polls in an election that resulted in a few surprises. Chances are that some of you watched the proceedings first hand, playing an important role in facilitating this huge exercise. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2007 that teachers should not be assigned non-academic duties including election duty, this round of polling too saw several teachers from schools and universities being deputed to serve as observers and polling officers, apart from some who had to do the door-to-door verification of electoral rolls. In Telangana alone, some reports estimated that nearly 95 per cent of government school teachers had to miss handling their classes for several days while they attended training for election duty. Some who had not attended were issued suspension notices. As the term suggests, being assigned to assist in elections is a duty, not a choice, and the government clearly reserves the right to demand compliance.

In a democracy as large as ours, it is difficult to argue against the drafting of citizens into roles that are crucial to the continuing health of the political process and, ultimately, a fair and just transfer of power by vote. Many of us would quite happily volunteer to take on some of these responsibilities in the belief and hope that they help protect our rights and freedoms. But as most people who have actually been in this position know, it’s not an easy job.

There has been a long standing appeal to leave teachers out of tasks such as elections and census surveys. These are huge exercises and cannot be carried out to the desired level without the cooperation of a large number of volunteers. And where better to find these “volunteers” than in government schools?

Right from reaching the polling stations (the day before and the day of voting) to managing the stay, to meals, to figuring out how to organize the sleeping arrangements, the assignment to duty presents a variety of challenges. If you’re lucky enough to be assigned to a place within the city or town you live in, then you can travel back and forth and not stay the night. But as often happens, if your assignment is in a distant polling station, you have to simply hope for the best. Many non-teachers assigned to such duty are often appalled at the state of facilities in some of the schools which serve as polling stations – the lack of toilets, the broken doors and windows, the lack of drinking water (or any water at all). Fortunately for them, it’s not a permanent place of work! These encounters could then become opportunities to understand the everyday conditions under which many of our teachers work, and most of our children learn.

But of course many of you already know this! The point is to acknowledge this wonderful work that so many of you are doing and bring attention to the difficulties faced. Elections are exciting because they reaffirm our faith in the democratic process. But they can also become an important reality check for a part of our population that has no idea of what some of our schools look like, from the inside…and maybe they will be sensitized about the need for a deeper, wider change of a different kind.

But in the meantime…here’s wishing all our readers a happy new year!