Around 14 crore citizens of Uttar Pradesh should be able to exercise their right to vote at the Assembly elections which kick off this weekend. However, errors, duplications and incomplete voter lists in urban centres across India threaten citizens' right to franchise.
India's rapidly growing cities will be home to 404 million more urban dwellers by 2050 than they were in 2014. Such rapid urbanisation brings about emerging issues in electoral democracy, such as the quality of voter lists, which need to be paid more attention in public discourse. The Election Commission of India (ECI)—custodians of the voter lists—have acknowledged issues and undertaken clean-up drives by linking Aadhaar cards to the voter lists and, more recently, initiated the National Electoral Role Purification drive. However, despite these efforts, reports of issues remain—for example, the 263-year-old voter in Ludhiana in the run up to state elections in Punjab as well as reports of misspelt names, incorrect address, wrong photos on election identity cards and duplicated names in Pune in January this year. The cities of Lucknow and Kanpur are no exception to the process issues within the voter list maintenance system, a recent study by Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy found.
Using a very manual process, BLOs add those who are eligible onto the lists and take off names of those who are ineligible.
A bulk of voter list maintenance is carried out by the low-profile booth-level officers (BLOs) who, throughout the year, work on maintaining accurate lists. BLOs are government/semi-government officials and in addition to their full-time jobs, are tasked with performing voter list maintenance duties. They are the only source of on-ground verification of voters and are one of the largest sources of data on the electorate. The hundreds of thousands of BLOs in India work directly with citizens. Using a very manual process, they add those who are eligible onto the lists and take off names of those who are ineligible. However, research from Lucknow (42 BLOs interviewed) and Kanpur (45 BLOs interviewed) found BLOs face many difficulties in executing their duties. They are also not easily accessible. The study found five main challenges affecting the efficacy of the voter lists.
1. Getting hold of BLOs is difficult
When calling a sample of 135 BLOs to execute the research, 27% of phone numbers in Lucknow were invalid, 7% were not the BLO named on the Chief Electoral Officer's website and 2% were not a BLO. Similarly, in Kanpur, 9% of numbers (out of 98 called) were invalid and 3% were not the named BLO. If citizens can't get hold of BLOs, they can't alert them to changes in their circumstances and details.
2. BLOs have too little time and too many citizens
The vast majority of BLOs indicated that they do their BLO work outside of full-time office hours (76% in Kanpur and 84% in Lucknow), despite guidelines indicating they should be deputised from their normal jobs to do BLO work. This limits time available to do list maintenance. Furthermore, in Lucknow, 71% of BLOs have to travel for half an hour or more to reach their assigned area and moreover, for 27% this journey is an hour or more. Similarly in Kanpur, nearly 20% of BLOs have to travel for an hour or more to reach their allotted area and 60% take at least half an hour.
The vast majority of BLOs indicated that they do their BLO work outside of full-time office hours (76% in Kanpur and 84% in Lucknow)...
Given the time available for list maintenance, for some BLOs the number of citizens is too large. In 19% of the polling parts sampled in Lucknow and 10% in Kanpur, the total number of citizens is more than the ECI's guideline of 1400. In Lucknow, 79 BLOs out of a total of 2497 service more than one polling part. In Kanpur, this figure is 25 out of a total of 2090. However, in Kanpur, 72 polling parts have no allocated BLO. Servicing more than the guideline number of citizens increases the workload for BLOs for whom time and resources are already low.
The concentration of list maintenance work in just a few months of the year adds to their woes and is mentioned by BLOs as one of the things that most adversely affects their ability to do list maintenance. With such time limitations to service large pools of citizens, updations may be missed and other errors are more likely.
3. BLOs are not familiar with their polling part areas
As noted, large proportions of BLOs have to travel for long time periods to reach their allocated polling parts. This is because, despite guidelines to the contrary, many BLOs do not live in the polling part to which they are assigned. This is the case for 88% of BLOs in Kanpur and 58% in Lucknow. This means these BLOs are less familiar with the areas they service, resulting in more time needed to scope areas when time is already in short supply. Furthermore, unfamiliarity with areas in itself can result in erroneous updations as well as missing citizens entirely.
4. BLOs are not receiving full payment
In the past year, only one BLO in Kanpur and two in Lucknow have received the full ₹5000 earmarked for this work. In fact, 36% of BLOs in Kanpur and 38% in Lucknow have not received any payment over the last year. Given the intense schedule of work required for list maintenance, lack of payment will likely influence BLO motivation.
5. Not all BLOs are regularly trained
Despite the initiation of National Electoral Roll Purification (NERP), on which the ECI stated all BLOs have been trained in the past year, 10% of BLOs in Kanpur and 18% in Lucknow say they have not been trained in the past year while 5% (in Kanpur) and 11% (in Lucknow) have never been trained at all. Without adequate training, expectations of the BLO may not be clear.
Difficulty contacting BLOs, lack of training, long travel times to polling parts, servicing larger than the mandated pools of citizens and unfamiliarity in traversing the complex area layouts using manual processes, means the validity of voter lists is potentially heavily compromised. BLO work and motivation is likely further compromised by lack of payment.
To ensure 100% accurate voter lists, the BLO system must be revamped and technology solutions explored.
To ensure 100% accurate voter lists, the BLO system must be revamped and technology solutions explored. Creating smart technology-enabled workflows for BLOs involving handheld devices for servicing voter requests, GIS mapping of polling part boundaries, improved management information systems for performance management etc. can help improve the BLO system greatly.
Additionally, technology-driven reforms such as automatic voter registration and database linkages that can help identify voter movement across polling parts can also help the system in reducing BLO workload by targeting their intervention better. The ECI is arguably one of the most credible and efficient organisations in the country. So, if there is one organisation that can do something as ambitious as this at scale, it would be the ECI.