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     Volume 8 Issue 52 | January 9, 2009 |

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No Voting for the
Physically Challenged?

Jackie Kabir

The day wasn't like any other in the sense that the media, the announcement over loud hailer declared that this was the day, December 29 2008. After seven long years Bangladeshis would be casting their votes in order to elect parliamentarians representing them at the ninth parliament. So even though it felt like a holiday with no hurried visit to the washroom and choosing what clothes to put on, I felt a kind of hurry because we needed to cast our vote as early possible. We wanted to avoid the long queue. Moreover, I couldn't wait to see the inside of the polling centre. There was a festive mood all around. The people standing in the queue didn't seem to mind; all they wanted was to cast their votes.

Without finding any rickshaw, we decided to walk to the polling station. When we were crossing the road near our residence, as I looked up, all I could see was the posters hanging from the strings all over - the trees, the electric poles and from one string to another. It looked quite interesting actually. We Bangladeshis are used to seeing posters on walls, on tree trunks and on the electric poles. So, for us, this was definitely something new and unique.

As we reached the polling centre at Bangladesh International Tutorial school premises, we were both shocked and elated to see so many people standing in the queue. Mind you, this was the male voters queue. Women were arriving sporadically and so were going in and out of the polling station with ease. I forgot to take my voter's number that different political parties had given us when they came to our house during the polls campaigns. I thought my national ID card would do, but I had to take the help of the polling agent of a political party to find my voter's number without which I couldn't vote.

I had finished casting my vote and sat in front of the school building as my spouse was yet to cast his vote. There was an elderly man with snow-white beard sitting with a gloomy face on the same bench. I enquired if he was waiting for someone. He answered that he had got up very early to come here that day. He usually didn't get out of his house often, as it was difficult for him to move about with his crutches. His voting booth was on the third floor and it was not possible for him to go up the three flights as his number was on the third floor. He was a senior citizen and had only an attendant to look after him. The attendant was standing next to him with a kind of helplessness on his countenance. I was disturbed. Surely there must be a way for this gentleman to cast his vote.

I looked for someone who could inform me about this. The police and guards were the only people I could find. One of them told me he had to be carried to the polling booth - be it five or six flights high in order to exercise his right to franchise. If that was not possible then he didn't know anything further.

There was another elderly lady with her family who came in a wheelchair. Now she was adamant to talk to some higher official. She was angry, frustrated and was on the verge of breaking down. Many foreign journalists were around trying to find whether voting was being held in a free and fair environment. But to my utter surprise, even the media people were not looking at her. I could feel her pain; it bore through me.

I located a BBC journalist who was a friend an asked him to talk to her. She told the journalist that had she known this would be the case she wouldn't have come here. Her husband talked to the presiding officer who said they didn't have any instruction on matters regarding the physically challenged or ailing population who might also want to exercise their democratic right. And if the ballot papers were brought out of the room, the presiding officer said, they would be arrested.

While some disabled voters were able to cast their vote, many were turned away because the voting booths were on the first, second or third floors.

So there was absolutely nothing they could do. She was the fifth voter who came in a wheelchair and had to be sent back without being able to vote. There was another voter in a wheelchair whose son carried her up the stairs but had to move from room to room as he didn't know where her serial number was.

It was only eleven o clock in the morning and who knows how many more voters would come during the course of day. My journalist friend got the information and may have broadcast it on the radio. But did that ease the pain of these physically challenged citizens? Could there be any words that would make them not feel useless in the society? Why hadn't it occurred to the mind of the learned commissioners who had a whole two years to plan for the polls? They could have made special arrangements for the people on wheelchairs! But they hadn't. They had nonchalantly forgotten about them.

Then the information came saying that more than 87 per cent voters turned up at the polling stations across Bangladesh. But did anyone make any note of how many voters came and yet couldn't cast their votes due to some people's utter negligence in thinking ahead about them? Some of these people may not be around to see the next election. We do hope that next time around, things will not be the same for those who will have the opportunity to cast their vote and that necessary arrangements will be made for the elderly or physically challenged people wishing to take part in democracy in a democratic country.

Jackie, an M.Phil. candidate, teaches English. She can be contacted at jackie.kabir@gmail.com

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