Off they go to hills and marshes – on poll duty

By Sabyasachi Roy, IANS,

Kolkata : From bullock carts to helicopters, everything is being used to ferry more than 300,000 poll officials across the topographically diverse state of West Bengal – a glimpse of what it takes to keep the wheels of India’s colourful democracy running.

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Deputed on poll duty from their parent departments in the central and state governments, the officials will traverse hills, rivers, forests, marshes and barren land to reach 70,156 polling booths spread across 19 districts in West Bengal for the April-May assembly elections.

The state has a population of more than 80 million people, of whom around 56 million had been listed on the electoral rolls till the end of February. The number is expected to rise further.

Polling for the 294-member assembly will be spread over six phases – April 18, 23, 27 and May 3, 7 and 10.

Stretched across 88,752 sq km, West Bengal is surrounded by land on three sides. In its south lies the Bay of Bengal, while its northern part nestles in the Himalayan range.

It also shares borders with Assam, Jharkhand, Bihar and Sikkim and international boundaries with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

“Arranging transportation for the huge number of polling officials is not only a mammoth task, but challenging as well,” Deputy Chief Electoral Officer Saibal Barman said.

“For transportation, besides normal modes like buses, minibuses, trucks and van-rickshaws, helicopters, bullock and buffalo carts and boats too will be used,” said Burman.

Total expenditure on transportation – excluding helicopters and animal carts – will be over Rs.15 crore.

Polling officials have to trek seven to eight kilometres in the hilly areas of three assembly constituencies – Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong – in Darjeeling district for want of proper transportation, he added.

Another difficult landscape is the world’s largest delta region of the Sunderbans, where officials have to be ferried by boats through the narrow creeks and water channels that crisscross the area.

These remote areas – Kakdwip, Gosaba, Basanti, Pathar Pratima, Sagar, Hingalganj, Sandeshkhali and Haroa – located in South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts, are accessible only by boats.

“In the Sunderbans, the poll officials have to start two days before the polls to reach the polling stations on time,” Barman said.

For Jalpaiguri and western districts – West Midnapore, Birbhum, Bakura and Purulia districts – some officials will trek several kilometres through dense forests inhabited by wild animals like elephants, jackals and bears.

In some remote corners in Murshidabad, Malda and Nadia districts, officials have to be carried by bullock and buffalo carts.

“If it rains during the polls, we require more such transportation modes for these wetland areas as the accessibility becomes even more difficult,” Barman said.

Earlier, officials rode ponies to reach isolated pockets of South Bengal districts, but authorities have discontinued the practice because of the high risks involved.

Some 20 years ago, horse-driven carts were also used for transporting polling officials to parts of Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia districts, where the animals were available in plenty.

In the Maoist-affected areas, authorities also have the responsibility of ensuring the safety of poll officials.

“If the situation demands, we will use helicopters for dropping officials to polling stations in the LEW (Left Extremist Wing)- dominated regions,” Additional Chief Electoral Officer Nikhil K. Sahana said.

During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, poll officials were airlifted to LEW areas of Purulia district.

However, choppers will be used by election observers and Deputy Election Commissioner Vinod Kumar Zutsi, who is in charge of election preparations in the state, on polling days.

“Since security is a major concern, we are taking the rail route for deployment of the armed forces. In many cases, we have had to book the entire train,” Sahana said.

Though the authorities cannot heave a sigh of relief till the polls are over, top officials like Barman are confident about their preparations.

“As this is a usual process during the polls and everything is tried and tested, we will not face any difficulties. We will complete the election process successfully,” he said.

(Sabyasachi Roy can be contacted at [email protected])