Amid Covid-19 concerns, crèche facility aids Bengal women poll officials
For 33-year-old Ritumita Bandopadhayay, her first election duty on April 22 in Uttar Dinajpur West Bengal, in the sixth phase of state assembly elections, came with its own set of challenges amid the pandemic. Her biggest concern was her three-year-old daughter, Aarushi. Leaving the child with the family wasn’t an option as they would go out to vote. Neither was taking her along as it could mean exposing the child to Covid-19.
“Working for the election was my duty and I knew I had to do that. Although my mother and sister-in-law could have stayed with my baby, their duty was to vote, and they would eventually have to venture out for the same,” said Bandopadhayay.
On polling day, an initiative by the administration of Uttar Dinajpur (which has 9 assembly constituencies), with cooperation from the Election Commission (EC), came to Bandopadhayay’s rescue in the form of a temporary crèche. In all, eight temporary crèches were set up in four of the nine constituencies going to polls on April 22 for the children of women polling personnel to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to the children while allowing their mothers to work more freely.
The step came in the wake of some women officials raising concerns regarding being on election duty with young children in tow during the pandemic. “Traditionally, West Bengal has called on men for election duty,” Uttar Dinajpur district magistrate Arvind Kumar Mina said. “The Commission added 1,001 extra polling stations for this assembly elections due to the pandemic, taking the number from 2,075 to 3,076. As we moved to recruit more women, we were constantly asked for exemptions as many of them had young children they were afraid to leave behind or expose to the virus.”
To ensure the participation of women in the election process, Mina said that with the help of the EC, the district decided to set up temporary crèches at the model polling stations which are run only by women. Poll officials were allowed to leave their children overnight at the crèches, set up the day before the election, in case they had to stay with the electronic voting machines. Overall, 1,362 women were engaged as poll officials
In the morning, as voting began, the crèche facilities were extended to the voters as well. Children up to 18 years of age were allowed to wait at the crèches set up in schools and handled by aanganwadi workers. They were all situated close to the polling stations to enable ease of access, and were stocked with food to reduce exposure to the virus.
Uttar Dinajpur has a total number of 1,044,195 women voters. EC officials say that 70-80 childrenavailed of the facilities. “Since waiting time in voters’ queues can be long, crèches ensured that children who came along with family didn’t have to wait in crowded lines amid the Covid situation and they had a safe, hygienic place to sit and play while their elders cast their vote,” EC said in a statement to HT.
Covid-19 protocols were also diligently followed at the crèches. “We ensured that proper Covid-19 protocol was observed at crèches,” Mina said.
Deepshika Sarkar, who has been an aanganwadi worker in Raiganj for nearly 10 years,said this was the first time she was a part of such an initiative. “We were informed on [April ] 17 that we may have to work at the schools,” she said. “There were to be two shifts: one for the night of the April 21, and the second from 7am to 7pm,the end of polling, on April 22.”
Sarkar said when she took over at 7am on April 22, a five-year-old boy and three-year-old girl were present at the crèche. “Mattress and food had been arranged for the children,” she said.
An EC official familiar with the matter said that a lot of freedom is given to district officials to introduce welfare measures during the poll process. While women poll officials raised the issue for the sixth phase, a similar situation did not arise in the seventh one on April 26.
“The response is on a need basis, wherever it is felt that such measures will help, the district administration can introduce them,” the poll official said.
Meanwhile, Bandobadhayay is happy she could perform her duty without having to worry about her child. Without the crèche, she would have had to find some other solution that would have required her to manage more logistics. “The crèche made it easier for me. I could do my election duty and also ensure my baby’s safety,” she said.