From bullock carts to helicopters, everything is being used to ferry more than three lakh poll officials across the topographically diverse West Bengal.
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 of West Bengal for the April-May Assembly elections.
The state has a population of more than 80 million people, of who 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.
"Arranging transportation for the huge number of polling officials is not only a mammoth task, but challenging as well," said deputy chief electoral officer Saibal Barman.
"For transportation, besides normal modes such as buses, minibuses, trucks and van-rickshaws, helicopters, bullock and buffalo carts and boats too will be used," he said. Total expenditure on transportation, excluding helicopters and animal carts, will be more than Rs 15 crore.
Polling officials have to trek seven to eight kilometres in the hilly areas of three Assembly constituencies - Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, for want of proper transportation.
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, 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 such as elephants, jackals and bears.
In some remote corners in Murshidabad, Malda and Nadia, officials have to be carried by bullock and buffalo carts. "If it rains during the polls, we require more such modes for these wetland areas as the accessibility becomes 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 officials to parts of Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia.
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.
Choppers will be used by election observers and deputy election commissioner Vinod Kumar Zutsi, who is in charge of preparations on polling days. "Since security is a major concern, we are taking the rail route for deployment of armed forces. In many cases, we have had to book an entire train." IANS