Kolkata: Manotosh Sarkar has been chosen for poll duty in West Bengal but is seeking an exemption. "I have a very young daughter," says the government school teacher in Bolpur town, unwilling to put his life at risk in a state that has seen intense political violence.
Election officials are facing an uphill task as over 300,000 polling people are being posted for the massive electoral exercise starting April 18, and many like Manotosh feel they could be targeted by political goons. Almost 50 percent of the total polling stations have been identified as sensitive as the ruling Left Front faces a stiff challenge from the opposition Trinamool Congress.
"For smooth conduct of polls, we need to engage 336,600 polling officials, including presiding officers, first polling, second polling and third polling officials in 70,156 booths," joint Chief Electoral Officer Dibendu Sarkar told IANS. "Usually, central and state government officials and school teachers are selected as polling officials," he added.
"In each booth, four polling officials are required and we keep 20 percent polling officials in reserve; so for 70,156 polling booths the number of officials required are 336,600," Sarkar said.
Engaging such a number is quite difficult. In some cases, government employees, mainly the school teachers, become election agents of candidates to avoid poll duty. "This year we have strictly asked the district election officer not to release any employee from poll duty after he is selected as polling official," said the joint chief electoral officer.
He admitted facing problems in posting polling officials in districts like South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Kolkata, Howrah and Hooghly. "In Howrah and Hooghly, there are fewer government offices and so we need to post officials in these two districts from the other three districts," Sarkar said.
"Intra-district posting of officials is quite tough as most of them are reluctant to go to other districts," he added.
In many districts, school teachers are apprehensive about going on poll duty.
"During the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, I was the presiding officer at a booth at Hatia in the Labpur area of Birbhum district. We were not only threatened by the armed goons of both political parties the previous night, but bombs were hurled near the booth, injuring two electors on the poll day," said Monatosh Sarkar of Bolpur.
"This year I have been selected but I wish to get an exemption," the teacher said.
The condition is more pathetic for teachers in Maoist-affected districts - West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia district. "Our lives are constantly under the shadow of fear and with the polls it increases manifold," said Ritwick Tripathy, teacher of Sundara High School in the Keshria area of West Midnapore district.
"The fact that a compensation of Rs 10 lakh will be paid if any official dies due to an extremist attack shows that the authorities are anticipating such attacks," he said. "As participating in poll duty is mandatory, we are bound to go. The Election Commission (EC) should reconsider their selection process and give exemption to those who are unwilling to take up duty in troubled areas," he added.
Two polling officials and a driver were killed April 30, 2009, in a landmine blast triggered by the Maoists in West Midnapore. "In spite of the Election Commisssion's assurances of tight security, we still do not feel secure going on poll duty," said Suronjan Gorai, a teacher at Netai Primary School near Lalgarh.
"As we all know that the Maoists are against the democratic set-up, they would surely use violent means to disrupt the elections," he added.
Election official Dibendu Sarkar said there would be no compromise in their security. "We cannot compromise with the security of polling officials. This year, the security arrangement will be more than expected. If required, aerial surveillance will be conducted in the area," he said.
Special arrangements are being made for 14 Maoist-affected constituencies in West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura districts, which will go to the polls on May 10, he said.
So the six-phase assembly polls from April 18 to May 10 to elect 294 legislators will be an acid test all right, but not just for political parties.