2024 Lok Sabha polls: Braille and the ballot

Amid poor implementation of state regulations for people with disability, some cast their vote against all odds

At many polling booths, the visually disabled can't vote confidently (illustration: Antara Raman/PARI)
At many polling booths, the visually disabled can't vote confidently (illustration: Antara Raman/PARI)

Sarbajaya Bhattacharya

2024 was Bablu Kaibarta’s second chance to vote in a general election.

When Bablu went to cast his vote for the first time in 2019, he didn’t have to wait in any queue: the officials let him through. But once he went into the polling booth in the village of Palma in West Bengal’s Purulia district, Bablu was not sure how he would cast his vote.

Bablu, 24, is a person with a visual disability. At the local primary school, which was doubling up as a polling centre, there were no provisions for Braille ballot papers or a Braille EVM (electronic voting machine).

I didn’t know what to do. What if the person helping me lied about the symbols? And even if he didn’t, what about my right to a secret ballot?

Feeling slightly nervous, Bablu pressed the button that was pointed out.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) specifies the use of Braille ballots and EVMs for PWD-friendly booths for 'persons with disability'. “There are many provisions on paper,” says Shampa Sengupta, director of the Kolkata-based Sruti Disability Rights Centre. “But implementation is poor.”

Of the 26.8 million persons with general disabilities in India, over 18 million are from rural areas and 19 per cent of the disabilities are vision-related (Census 2011). Implementation is largely restricted to urban areas, says Shampa, adding that “this kind of awareness is only possible if the Election Commission takes the initiative”.

Ahead of Purulia going to the polls on 25 May 2024, Bablu was unsure whether he would make the journey home to vote. The lack of facilities for persons with disabilities such as him was not the only reason behind this second-year undergraduate’s uncertainty.

Purulia is a six- to seven-hour train journey from Kolkata, where Bablu lives in his university hostel. He has to think about the expenses involved.

When this reporter spoke to him at the Centre for Persons with Disabilities at Jadavpur University, he said, “I am confused about whom to vote for. I might vote for one person thinking their party or their leaders are doing good work. After the elections, they might switch to the other side.”

Over the past few years, and especially before the state assembly elections in 2021, West Bengal has seen a number of politicians switching sides, often several times.

Bablu Kaibarta entering the Centre for Persons with Disabilities, Jadavpur University, Kolkata (photo: Prolay Mandal/PARI)
Bablu Kaibarta entering the Centre for Persons with Disabilities, Jadavpur University, Kolkata (photo: Prolay Mandal/PARI)
Prolay Mandal/PARI

Bablu wants to be a school or college teacher, as a government job can provide a stable income.

The School Service Commission (SSC) of the state has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. “The Commission used to be a great source of employment [for the youth],” says Gopa Dutta, former professor and president of the Higher Secondary Council in West Bengal. “This is because there are schools everywhere—in villages, small towns and the big city.” She adds that “being a school teacher was an aspiration for many”.

In the last seven or eight years, the recruitment process has come under the scanner. Bundles of notes have been found stashed away, ministers have gone to jail, candidates have sat in peaceful dharna for months on end demanding a fair and transparent process and, most recently, the Calcutta High Court has cancelled the recruitment of over 25,000 individuals. In the first week of May, the order was stayed by the Supreme Court of India, which said that a distinction had to be made between deserving and undeserving candidates.

“I feel scared,” Bablu says, referring to the state of affairs. “I heard there were 104 candidates with visual disabilities. Maybe they were deserving. Is anyone thinking about them?”

Not just in the case of SSC recruitment, Bablu feels that the needs of persons with disabilities have largely been overlooked by the authorities. “There are not enough schools for persons with visual disability in West Bengal,” he says. He had to leave home because of a lack of options and although he wanted to, could not return when the time came to pick a college. “I have never heard any government say that they are thinking about people with disabilities.”

But Bablu remains positive. “I have a few years to go before I have to look for a job,” he says, “I hope things will change.”

Bablu has been the sole earning member of his family since he turned 18. His sister, Bunurani Kaibarta, is a student of class 9 at the Calcutta Blind School. His mother Sondhya lives in Palma. The family belongs to the Kaibarta community (listed as a Scheduled Caste in the state), whose traditional occupation is fishing.

Bablu’s father used to catch and sell fish, but whatever little he had saved up was spent on his treatment after he was diagnosed with cancer.

After his father passed away in 2012, Bablu’s mother worked for a few years. “She used to sell vegetables,” Bablu says, “but now, in her 50s, she cannot work too hard.” Sondhya Kaibarta receives a widow’s pension of Rs 1,000 every month. “She started getting it last year in August or September,” Bablu says.

His own source of income is tuitions and composing music for local studios in Purulia. He also receives Rs 1,000 every month under the Manabik Pension Scheme.

A trained singer, Bablu also plays the flute and the synthesiser. There was always a culture of music in his house, he says. “My thakurda (paternal grandfather), Rabi Kaibarta, was a well-known folk artist in Purulia. He used to play the flute.”

Bablu was still in Purulia when he heard a flute for the first time on the radio at home. “I would listen to the news from Bangladesh, the Khulna station, and they would play an intro before it began. I asked my mother what that music was.”

When she said it was a flute, Bablu was confused. He had only seen a bhepu, the kind that made a loud quacking noise, that he used to play with as a child.

A few weeks later, his mother bought him a flute from a local fair for 20 rupees. But there was no one to teach him how to play.

In 2011, Bablu moved to the Blind Boys’ Academy in Narendrapur on the outskirts of Kolkata, after a harrowing experience at the Blind School in Purulia made him quit and stay at home for two years. “Something happened one night that scared me. The school had very poor infrastructure and the students were left alone at night. After that incident, I asked my parents to take me home,” Bablu says.

At Narendrapur, Bablu was encouraged to play music. He learnt to play both the flute and the synthesiser and was part of the school orchestra. Now, he often performs at functions, besides recording interludes for songs sung by artists from Purulia. For each studio recording, he earns Rs 500. But it is not a stable source of income.

“I cannot pursue music as a career,” he says, “I don’t have enough time to devote to it. I haven’t been able to learn enough because we didn’t have money. Now, it is my responsibility to take care of the family.”

As for these elections, he did go to Purulia after all. And cast his vote, against all odds.

This article was first published by the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI).

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