9 January 2009

A fundamental right or a bureaucratic nightmare?

I have become a rabid, fomenting, voter ID advocate in the last few months, especially to people in my age group. The idea is quite simple: Stop complaining, start voting. If we, the urban educated masses, don't go out in droves to exercise our fundamental right then we have no right to complain about the government. The system of democracy might ensure that our favoured party, assuming there is a party or candidate you like, might not win. But unless we make our presence felt, through the numbers, we can't speak of change or even of being active citizens.

While growing up my exposure to governments and civil society was entirely text bookish. I learnt the way our government is organized or the chief justice is elected but I didn't learn about how laws are proposed or about my options if I don't want to pay a bribe. Civics was a subjected to be rote learnt and regurgitated for the exams. My schooling followed a typical pattern: board exams, graduation, post graduation and then the flight across the Atlantic. There was no time to be socially conscious and neither were we encouraged to be that way. I would bet that most urban Indians from my background had a similar experience. Therefore, we are a population already imbued with apathy for the system and that extends to voting as well. All this is not a justification for the apathy but a comment on how our schooling necessarily doesn't prepare us to become citizens. With this type of background it's also not surprising when people give me the following excuses when I enquire about their voter ID status.

"What's the point? We are outnumbered by the slum dwellers anyway so our voice doesn't count."

"The rural population determines our election outcomes so why should I waste my precious time in a process where I know I won't be counted?"

These merge in with other excuses ...

" I don't have the time to go through the hassle."

" I have a voter ID card but it's in my native place and I don't want to change it."

" I am waiting for my ration card to be made." (This was easy to settle; you can use various proofs for registering on the electoral list).

For those individuals who have the inclination and are provided the information, the bureaucracy is daunting. There is no one source of information. Sure Jagoore.com is a good resource (I have used it several times and it doesn't work always) but what if you are not in a city they are operating in? Also, the website is a great source of information but it doesn't take away from the fact that finally you have to visit an office and submit you paperwork after which, it will take weeks for you to know if you made it on the list. Now, if you have a voter ID already you would think that shifting it over to a new constituency would be easy, right? Wrong! Apparently your voter ID is not a valid representation of your citizenship nationally so you have to first delete your name in your previous electoral list and then apply freshly to the local ERO. You would think that the first verification would be rock solid, so why should you have to go through the process again? As a citizen you should be able to execute a change in address by the click of a button. We have a tonne of software geeks around so why not get them to create a national voter ID database where such things can be managed?

The rationale behind thinking that your vote doesn't count isn't entirely incorrect. Per sq km the density of humans in a slum or low income neighbourhood is higher than we who occupy single bunglows. Most people in the slums may be bought over but who is to say this person actually votes for the group that paid him? Also, it's we who use the roads, flush our toilet mess into the sewer and want to pay our taxes online. So unless we take up these issues with our local political set up our concerns aren't going to magically appear. The sad truth still remains that caste, religion and locality determines the winner in most cases but these are harder to use in heterogenous urban populations. My argument in such cases is simple - if you and your posse of friends are not voting, then you are never going to win the numbers argument because you are already letting the numbers make you apathetic.

Voter apathy is not a new phenomenon but the random and paper-intensive approach to voter registration doesn't make it easy either. I can't think of any way to get all my friends on the electoral list besides hounding them to do the paperwork and submitting it. In fact, in spite of my fact finding missions, I myself ended up submitting my paperwork at the wrong office and the information never got forwarded to me or to the right office. So, ultimately, who is the loser? Me! But I think these deterrents are not insurmountable. There is a system; it's very flawed; yet billions go to vote so surely, something must work. Right now it has become my onus as a citizen to ensure my voting rights are granted but hopefully that would change. Meanwhile, if you are reading this blog and are not registered to vote, shoot me an email and let' s work on it. Even if you are overseas you might as well get a voter ID because you never know when there might be elections kyunki darling, yeh hai India.

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