Ninety-six-year-old Dr Leela Gokhale has voted diligently every year since India attained Independence. However, if the Pune District Election department continues its present apathetic attitude towards facilities for senior citizens, Gokhale, despite being fiercely committed to casting her vote, may have to miss out this year. Balkishan Mandir, a school that is the polling booth for citizens living on or near Fergusson College Road, has no convenient ramps for the specially-abled, despite clear instructions from the Election Committee (EC).
Gokhale, one of the first trained women gynaecologists in the city, said, "In the last Lok Sabha elections, the polling booth was on the first floor, and I was five years younger. I had managed to climb the stairs with help. This time, I can walk, but climbing stairs is not possible."
Gokhale now walks with the help of a walker, but the four steps leading into the polling booth stand between her and her voting rights.
"I have not missed voting even once. I am alive and I honestly feel I should vote," Gokhale declared. While there is no separate data for the number of senior citizen voters in Pune district, the number of specially-abled people stands at approximately 45,000.
Ramdas Mhatre, a resident of Wanowrie who is 94 per cent physically challenged, said he would visit Mahadaji Shinde school in Wanowrie to check if the polling booth is disability-friendly. "Many booths have no ramps, and dividers and gates also make it difficult for us," he said, adding that he had faced difficulties during the civic elections District Collector Saurabh Rao said that 568 helpers have been deputed for 1,140 polling stations located on the first floor, but that no ramps are available.
When Mirror approached the Balkishan Mandir authorities, they said there was a small, cement ramp leading to a back entrance. However, the ramp was wedged in a narrow space where an elderly person, especially one in a wheelchair, would find it difficult to reach.
Town planner and Gokhale's daughter Anita Gokhale Benninger, said, "We contacted BJP-Sena candidate Anil Shirole's office, but his men simply told us that such facilities are not available. Does this mean my mother will not be able to vote?"
Gokhale added that the EC website mentions that ramps should be provided at each polling station. Ironically, the apathy remains even after the EC wrote to the Commissioner for Persons With Disabilities, Government of India, that barrier-free polling stations would be provided for the specially-challenged. The letter mentioned ramps and safe drinking water.
Vijaya Pawar, Deputy Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, Maharashtra, was vague, merely saying, "Polling booth officials must see to it that specially-challenged persons can cast their vote."
Rahul Deshmukh, founder-member of the National Association for the Welfare of Physically Challenged observed that in cases of person suffering from orthopaedic disabilities, wheelchairs needed to be provided at polling booths, while visually impaired voters needed assistants. "Unfortunately, specially-challenged people are not considered a consolidated vote bank, so most political parties ignore their needs," he said.
Dharmendra Satav of Prahar Apang Kranti Dal claimed that 7 to 8 per cent voters are physically or mentally challenged. "Political parties sometimes provide pick-up facilities for these voters, but the party workers often disappear once the voting is over, leaving the voters stranded," he said.
Source : Pune Mirror , 16th April 2014