EC issues guidelines on polls during pandemic

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Published on Aug 21, 2020 11:59 PM IST
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ByDeeksha Bhardwaj, New Delhi

From putting a cap on the number of people involved in door-to-door campaigning to allowing the submission of nomination forms online to providing voters with gloves before they use electronic voting machines (EVMs) — the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Friday released a set of broad guidelines for holding elections in the time of the coronavirus disease pandemic.

While standard safety measures such as social distancing and wearing of masks, among others, will be followed, ECI also said those with high temperature will have to vote in the last one hour of the polling process and that there will be fewer voters at a booth.

HT reported on Wednesday that the poll watchdog was finalising the guidelines to hold the first set of elections, especially that in Bihar, in the wake of Covid-19.

In the guidelines, ECI also decided to “decentralise” the training of officials in charge of the polling process. This effectively means that their training will either happen online or will be conducted face-to-face in a staggered manner.

“Hand gloves shall be provided to all the electors for signing on the voter register and pressing button of EVM for voting,” the poll watchdog said, adding that face masks, sanitizers, thermal scanners, gloves, face shields and personal protective equipment kits “shall be used during the electoral process ensuring social distancing norms”.

Also, the number of tables in a counting hall has been slashed by half — from 14 to seven. The commission also said a maximum of 1,000 people will be allowed to cast their votes at a polling station, a significant reduction from the earlier figure of 1,500.

At polling booths, electors will stand six feet-apart, in line with health ministry guidelines. Soap, water and hand sanitizers will be made available at the entry point. Thermal scanners will also be there.

Covid-19 patients, those in quarantine for symptoms and those with temperature higher than normal will be made to wait and vote in the last one hour, in keeping with safety norms prescribed by the health ministry.

Extra face masks will be kept for those not carrying one. During the identification process, voters will require to lower the face mask, the document said.

“Earmarking circle for 15-20 persons of 2 yards (6 feet) distance for voters standing in the queue depending on the availability of space. There shall be three queues each, for male, female, and PwD (people with disabilities)/ senior citizen voters,” the guidelines said.

A group of just five people, including candidates but excluding security personnel, is allowed to take part in door-to-door campaigning.

For road shows, a convoy of vehicles should have an interval after every five vehicles instead of 10 vehicles (excluding security vehicles, if any). The interval between two sets of convoys of vehicles should be half-an-hour instead of a gap of 100 metres.

The commission’s guidelines added: “In all, such identified grounds (where public rallies are to be conducted), the District Election Officer should, in advance, put markers to ensure social distancing norms by the attendees.”

Nomination forms will be available online on the website of the chief electoral officer and district election officer. The number of persons to accompany a candidate for submission of nomination has been restricted to two. The number of vehicles for the purposes of nomination is also restricted to two.

While elections have taken place in other countries since the pandemic, including in Sri Lanka recently, elections in India have only been confined to polls to the Rajya Sabha and legislative council seats, which involve a limited set of voters. Experts believe that the election guidelines adopted for Bihar, where elections are due in October-November, will have significant implications for political contests.

ECI, which reviewed suggestions received from state officials and political parties before releasing the final guidelines, is also likely to hold polls to the Samastipur parliamentary constituency and 56 assembly constituencies (across eight states) from September.

The Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) were critical of the guidelines.

The Congress issued a statement saying that the guidelines were not enough for the conduct of “free, fair and independent elections” in the time of Covid-19, and in ensuring the smooth elections in “free, non-partisan & fair fashion”.

“Despite having sought comments from political parties such as the Indian National Congress and in response to which detailed recommendations were given, the ECI has overlooked almost all the suggestions given and prepared guidelines that are inadequate in dealing with the challenge of Covid-19,” said party general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal.

RJD spokesperson Manoj Jha said the guidelines appeared to have been formulated keeping a country “other than India in mind”.

“These guidelines will not ensure maximum voter participation,” said Jha. “As an incentive, perhaps, a health insurance for voters can be offered, in case it is being offered to poll officials. An election with a 25% turnout is hardly an election.”

“It seems the ECI is more invested in the idea of an election, than in its democratic potential,” he added.

There was no immediate response by the Centre’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi said the guidelines were “very sensible” and have “drawn from the experience of other elections”. “They are in conformity with the health ministry guidelines...,” he said.

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