By Amitabh Bhushan-Snr Programme Officer-PRIA Bihar
The state of Bihar is to witness third municipal elections on 17th and 22nd May 2012. PRIA and Nagar Samaj Manch (state level collaboration of CSOs) are working on Pre-Election Voters’ Awareness Campaign (PEVAC), with the objective of sensitizing citizens to exercise their right to vote (aimed at increasing the percentage of voting which has been low in previous elections), formally launched with a state level consultation which was held on 05th April in Patna.
With the view to collaborate with State Election Commission (SEC) of Bihar, preliminary meetings and sharing of processes/developments are being done on regular intervals since April 2012. It was soon realized that the voters lack adequate information about the perspective of their candidates on development of their wards and developmental issues within the cities.
PRIA and Nagar Samaj Manch decided to organize ‘Know your candidate’ Program in four wards of Patna (4, 8, 7 and 22) with the objective of an interface between voters and candidates, which will serve as an opportunity for voters to understand the perspectives of the candidates around developmental challenges and to discuss on strategy of the contesting candidates to address these challenges for overall development of the wards. Even the SEC, Bihar realizing this gap between voters and candidates have launched a program of ‘Know Your Candidate’, asking the district administration to display details of candidates at prescribed public places to generate awareness among voters.
PRIA submitted a formal request letter to SEC on 7th April 2012 seeking permission to organize ‘Know your Candidate’ program and tried to meet the officials for the same. But as various meeting of district administration with SEC were prescheduled, representative of PRIA were informed that the officials were busy and unavailable to meet.
On the very next day SEC officials called up PRIA State office and asked the PRIA Staff to meet them and explain about the objectives of the events and what PRIA had been doing in the past on the Urban Context. A panel of four representatives from PRIA and Nagar Samaj Manch met the concerned Officials and explained them about the objectives of the programs and association of PRIA with Urban and rural PEVAC in Bihar. The official screened the previous documents of PRIA related with rural PEVAC 2011, CDP, issue papers of different cities. He then explained about the guidelines for organizing the events and finally agreed to issue the permission for the events.
In the evening when PRIA representatives approached SEC for the consent letter he had to sit up to 9:00 pm at SEC office but the letter was not provided. However the letter of permission was provided the next day with a condition to obtain permission for the same from the Sub Divisional Officer (SDO) for organizing the event. A letter in the context was submitted to the SDO – Law and Order, Patna on 10th May and the permission for the same is still awaited.
In this process, we remain hopeful of getting the permission, but the issue which needs to be debated is; ‘Who is responsible for sensitizing the voters? How can we mobilize citizen’s to exercise their votes in Municipal elections in such a situation where the key agency as SEC, which even after realizing the need for sensitizing the voters, is hiding away from their responsibilities by just asking district administration to come up with display of details of candidates which is not being addressed adequately.
On the contrary when voluntarily civil society organizations are coming forward to address such issues, instead of supporting their initiatives to sensitize voters, they are being questioned on the legitimacy of their past interventions and their commitments. Even after being furnished with relevant documents, the key agency told us to get permission letter from SDO’s office. As elections are approaching, the time is being wasted in the name of bureaucratic obligations and procedures when this time should be utilized in sensitizing the voters so that the voters’ turn out improve in these elections. Such attitude of SEC will only dissuade the organizations and potential groups trying their best to conduct Pre Elections Voters’ Awareness Campaign.