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Turnout Travails

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The respectable turnout of almost 70 percent for the municipal polls in Uttarakhand was around 4-5 percent more than in the previous election to the local urban bodies. Considering the fact that there were discrepancies in the voters’ lists at many places that denied many the opportunity to vote, and a considerable number of people live and work outside the state but remain on the rolls here, it showed considerable enthusiasm for this very important level of democracy.

At the same time, though, the turnout figures reveal that the noisiest citizens, who crib at the slightest shortcoming in municipal services – comparing them to those in cities they have visited abroad, etc., – were the fewest to turn out. On the other hand, as usual, those living in the poorer parts of cities exercised their franchise as much as ninety percent. This is one of the banes of democracy in India, as the failure to vote by better off citizens, who can afford a wider perspective on issues and are more knowledgeable, creates distortions in the mandate. Politicians naturally then tend to serve the interests, which are more immediate, of those who vote, instead of serving longer term objectives. This is one of the reasons why cities are developing without a long term vision or proper plans.

One example of this distortion is the approach to garbage management. While garbage negatively affects the poor the most, they have the least power to deal with it except through taking personal responsibility as municipal workers or as participants in ‘Swachh Bharat’ type initiatives. On the other hand, the most vociferous against waste are the well-off, but mostly for aesthetic reasons. Headline hitting activism is their thing, but involvement in the nitty-gritty of it is too much. The potent power of the vote, even, is too much effort to make. So it is that municipal governments are not motivated enough to evolve more sophisticated strategies on waste management.

As for the complaints about names having disappeared from the rolls, once again, the sense of entitlement poses a problem. The government officials are expected to go from home to home and update the lists at every election but, fundamentally, it is the duty of every individual voter to ensure his or her name is where it should be. With the dawn of the internet age, it is easy to do so from home. It is strange, therefore, that the educated and well-informed turn up at the booths and find their names missing. For it to function at its optimum, Democracy needs the involvement of its citizens well beyond just turning up on polling day.