Treading up the Himalayas, spending a night out - to vote

May 10th, 2009 - 12:07 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party By Vishal Gulati
Shimla, May 10 (IANS) They have to trudge miles of rugged, cold and inhospitable Himalayan terrain before they cast their vote, sometimes spending a chilly night at the polling station. Yet voters in the tribal belt of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh have done so year after year with gusto.

Around 50,760 voters are set to exercise their franchise from Kinnaur district, which is part of the Mandi constituency that goes to the polls May 13.

“Kunnu-Charang in Kinnaur’s Pooh subdivision is among the remotest polling stations in the state where voters have to trudge some 10 to 20 km to vote,” Anil Khachi, the state chief electoral officer, told IANS.

The polling booth is located at an altitude of 3,700 metres above sea level. “The polling station has just 169 voters. Most of them are settled in a radius of 15 to 20 km,” he added.

There are several hamlets across the district where voters have to trek more than 10 km to reach the polling station. The district headquarters of Kinnaur is 250 km from Shimla.

Kinnaur legislator Tejwant Negi said: “During polls, the tribals are excited about exercising their franchise. Some of them prefer trekking a day before polling to reach the venue (polling booth) where they spend the night.”

According to Negi, there are 15 to 20 isolated hamlets with approximately 2,000 voters, who are forced to spare almost one full day to take part in polling.

The residents of Kinnaur have a special place in the history of democracy in independent India as they were among the first to cast their votes. They were months ahead of the rest of the nation in exercising their franchise in the first general elections in 1951-52. This was done to ensure that snowfall did not deprive the tribals of the privilege of voting.

Shyam Saran, 92, was among those voters at the polling booth in Chini village Oct 25, 1951. Chini was later rechristened as Kalpa. The Election Commission has a videorecording of Saran casting his vote during the 2007 assembly elections.

Kinnaur district also boasts of the polling station with the least number of voters in the state. “The Kaa polling station near Yangthang has only 19 voters - the lowest in the state. There were 21 voters during the 2004 elections,” chief electoral officer Khachi said.

Jai Ram Thakur, a retired school teacher from Komik village in the Sangla valley, said: “We used to walk miles to cast votes. Now things have changed a lot. Better road connectivity has made most of the polling stations accessible.”

Kinnaur district is part of the sprawling Mandi constituency that covers almost two-thirds of the hill state. The climatic conditions of the entire district are harsh as much of the land falls under a cold desert.

Congress leader and five-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) three-time MP Maheshwar Singh are the main contestants in Mandi.

Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh is the sitting MP. In 2004, she defeated Maheshwar Singh by 66,566 votes.

Polling for the four Lok Sabha seats in Himachal Pradesh - Shimla, Kangra, Mandi and Hamirpur - is scheduled for May 13.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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