Sunday, May 11, 2014

The cost of taking democracy to remote India

Max Bearak reports from the Leh Valley in northern India today, in particular on the logistical challenges of facilitating voting in the remote villages there.  The story's headline, " Hikers Spread Democracy in India" is a bit misleading because those featured may "hike," but it is not the sort of leisure activity we typically associate with that word.  The "hikers" featured are a "polling team" sent to this isolated region to ensure free and fair voting during the recent national election period, which spanned six weeks.  It's the largest election in history, with 800 million registered voters casting ballots, including in these "hostile windswept barrens of India's craggy northern edge."

Among other things, Bearak highlights the cost of the voting in such remote locations:  $1665 per voter in the Leh District, probably the highest in the country.  Most of the funds went to "fuel and voting awareness campaigns in distant corners of the district," which spans 17,375 miles of alpine desert on the Tibetan Plateau.  Some of the Leh District locations where votes were cast  could be reached only by helicopter.  

Bearak explains the relevant election laws that require such outreach
In most of the rest of this crowded country, every 1,000 voters warrant a polling booth, but in Leh, only four of its 274 settlements would fit that bill. Instead, local officials hew more closely to the election commission’s rule that voters cannot be required to travel more than a mile and a quarter to their polling station.
As of the close of voting on Wednesday, 88% of voters--100 of 114 in Markha Village--had cast votes.  Interestingly, the voters  were plotting to "take advantage of multiparty democracy."  Bearak quotes Tsetan Dolkar, a resident of Markha who owns a guesthouse:    
We’ve tried in the past two elections to vote as a block for whoever will win, so that they will remember us and build us a road.  Both parties always make promises. Elections for us have always been about getting a road.
This reminds me of rural politicking in the United States, where rural voters are often also swayed by concerns about what elected officials can and will do about transportation infrastructure.

The story also reminds me of the increased cost of the state's presence, for all sorts of purposes, in rural locales, a topic I took up here.  

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