Sameera Begum is eagerly waiting for April 10, when Seoni, a tribal-dominated district in south Madhya Pradesh, goes to polls.
"I have received a personal invite from the district collector. It explains why it is important to vote.... I have never voted before but this time I will not miss it," said the 33-year-old mother of two young boys.
Seoni doesn't have an independent parliamentary seat: Its four constituencies are divided between adjoining Mandla and Balaghat districts. "We have sent such special invites to all registered voters in the district. To ensure that they cannot refuse this invitation to vote, we have given it a traditional touch: like you find on wedding cards, 'haldi' (turmeric) and 'kumkum' (vermilion) dots have been put on them," Priyanaka Das, CEO, Zilla Panchayat, a 2009 batch IAS officer, told HT.
Such unconventional and innovative methods of urging people to vote is a part of the Election Commission's Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) plan that is running across the country. While the plan was piloted in earlier assembly elections, this is the first time that it is being rolled out in parliamentary polls.
The EC came up with this idea after it realised that there was a diminishing interest in the voters to participate in elections and that there was a gap between what a voter should know and what they actually know about registration, EPIC/identity proofs, timing of polls, location of polling booths etc and the latest button on the block, the NOTA.
While the voter turnout in 1998 general elections was around 62%, in the successive Lok Sabha elections, the average has been around 58%. The SVEEP plan's special focus is on women, first-time voters and uneducated residents of inaccessible and remote areas.
According to the plan, every district does a situational analysis, targeted interventions, especially for excluded groups, facilitation for citizens, district-level plan, collaborates with educational institutions, youth organisations, government media and civil society to spread the message. Along with such efforts, a massive stress has been put on inter-personal communication, media communication and public participatory activities to encourage voters. The main thrust is on driving home the point that only by electing the right candidates, voters can ensure better laws and improved governance.
The Seoni administration, for example, has almost chalked out almost a war plan of innovative methods to increase voter participation. "To ensure that women come out and vote, we are holding mehendi and rangoli camps with SVEEP as the central theme," added Das. "A few days ago we had SVEEP mushaira and SVEEP Holi to spread the message". So while in rangoli camps women are doing election-related designs, in mehendi camps, women are drawing the EVM machines on each others' palms so that the message is sent out to the community.
According to the EC, since the launch of SVEEP, there has been a steady increase in the voter turnout in assembly elections of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Gujarat. "In Seoni, there was 5% rise in the voter participation in the assembly elections in 2013 after we rolled out the SVEEP plan. In the 2013, assembly elections, the district recorded an overall turnout of 80.2%," added Das, who heads the SVEEP programme in the district. More importantly, women participation increased from 73.6% to 79.03% from 2008 to 2013.
Other districts in the country are also using innovative methods, like essay, quiz competitions, street plays, short films skits and speeches by eminent personalities of the area to encourage voters' participation. In Jharkhand, voters will get discounts at hotels and restaurants if they show their ink mark on polling days.
"These efforts will also have a positive effect on future voters also ....and that will our biggest gain," said MC Sanodia, economics professor at Seoni's Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Girls Degree College, who has been a EC's master trainer for EVM machines since the 1990s.