KATHMANDU, Nov 21: Even after spending more than a billion rupees for the voter education program for the upcoming parliamentary and provincial assembly elections, the program could not be taken to the remote parts of the country, leaving the voters there unaware about how to cast error-free votes.
Voters interviewed by Republica in the far-flung villages in various districts said they are clueless on how to cast votes as none of the social mobilizers deployed for the program have reached them. The election officials however blamed the Supreme Court’s ruling for the delay in conducting the voter education program.
The officials claimed that the eleventh-hour order from the apex court not only caused a loss of tens of millions of rupees to the state coffers but also largely hampered their campaign to reach out to the voters.
“We could not work as per the people’s expectation this time around but let’s hope there will be no excuse in case of the second phase elections,” said Surya Prasad Aryal, head of the Election Education Information Center (EEIC), admitting that the voter education program is not up to the voters’ expectations.
“Apart from the court’s decision, the delay in taking various important decisions from the commission itself led to this situation,” he said.
Initially, the EC was preparing to mobilize voter education officials for a month starting from November 2 for the first round of elections taking place in 37 constituencies in 32 districts. But the plan was dropped when the court in the last week of October ordered the commission to print two separate ballot papers whereas the EC had already printed ballot papers for the proportional representation category and had just started printing ballots for the first-past-the-post (FPTP) category.
In the changed context after the court order, election materials such as posters, flip charts, brochures and sample ballots worth Rs 90 million were burnt down and more than 19,000 officials to educate voters remained idle for days due to the lack of education materials. The EC deployed the officials only after November 12, that too without adequate voter education materials.
“Voter education officials deployed for a month will hardly work for 15 days although we have to pay them full salary as per the contract signed with them. Though we spent money as per the original plan, it couldn’t work effectively,” said Aryal.
The EC has released more than Rs 1 billion for voter education, said EC officials. Voter education employees are hired for a month and an employee is paid Rs 15,000 for the same period. A huge amount of money, according to EC officials, was wasted while re-designing voters’ education materials as per the new ballot designs and printing the new lots.
Voters in Baitadi, Darchula, Dhangadhi, Bajura and Dhading said they are totally unaware about voting and voter education officials have not reached their villages.
“Nobody has come to me to teach the voting process. So, during local elections I had to seek help from my representative to ensure that my vote would not be invalid,” said Ruwashi Aauji, a local of Pacheshwar Rural Municipality of Baitadi.
Aauji, 50, plans to take the help of somebody else this time as well for the same reason. In Baitadi, only 182 voter education officials are deployed.
Locals worry limited number of voter education officials will not be able to reach out to each voter since very few days are left for polls. It takes weeks to reach the remote villages of the district because of the difficult mountainous terrain.
“So far, voter education officials have not reached the villages,” said Khagendra Dhami, a ward chairperson of Sigas Rural Municipality in Baitadi.
Darchula District Election Office has stated that the voter education program has already started in two municipalities and seven rural municipalities of the district. But the voters complained none of the voter education official has approached them so far.
“No one has taught us the voting method so far,” said Nanda Giri, a local of Malikarjun Rural Municipality of Darchula.
Voters in remote parts of Dhading district are still unaware about the voting process. Locals in the northern parts of the district said they are totally deprived of voter education.
Khomaya Tamang of Ruby Valley-4, Lapa, has no idea how he will cast his ballot. He is not even aware that there will be three ballot papers in the election which is taking place early next week. “Neither the candidates have informed us about the voting process nor the election officers have come here,” said Tamang, adding, “In each election, I drop my vote without knowing the candidates and parties properly. I have been doing what I know. I’m not sure I’ll cast valid votes.”
Despite taking part in several elections, Marichman Tamang of Tipling, Dhading still has no idea about the voting process. “A lot of people like me don’t know how to vote,” he said.
Voters in remote areas said they will vote on the basis of the information learnt from radio and televisions. Voters will have to walk for days to reach the polling booths to cast their votes as there are no roads in Tipling.
According to Anusha Ghale, election officer deployed in Ruby Valley-3, Sertung, difficult topography, lack of transportation and time pressure are the reasons behind the failure to provide voter education in the rural parts. “We don’t have much time left for the elections and it’s difficult for us to reach some villages which are not even connected to roads,” she said.
Also, locals in the district headquarters complained that they have been deprived of voter education.
District Election Office, Dhading has mobilized 275 election officers in the district for voter education. Ishwor Simkhada, district election officer in the district, said some of the voters won’t be able to get voter education due to the time constraint.
Locals accused the EC of failing to make the voter education program effective despite spending huge money in the name of educating the locals.
“It seems the voter education program is not effective. The number of invalid votes is likely to increase,” said Dharmadev Bhatta, chief of Aishwarya Multiple Campus in Dhangadhi.
High number of invalid votes has become a matter of serious concern in recent elections. The EC spent Rs 750 million for voter education in the latest local elections, but the invalid votes remained as high as 22 percent in some local units.
(With inputs from Dil Bahadur Chhatyal from Kailali, Bira Gadal from Baitadi, Prem Chunara from Darchula and Sarita Shrestha from Dhading)