The rise of the ‘Others’


By bappaditya paul
West Bengal has registered a 58.82 per cent increase in the number of eunuch voters in the past three years. In voters’ list, eunuchs are identified as “others” and they are a category distinct from the transgender. EunuchsAccording to figures availed from the office of the state Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), it was in 2012 when eunuchs were first enrolled as “others” in the state’s electoral roll. That year, the number of eunuch voters stood at 323. In 2013, the number rose to 402, registering an increase of 24.45 per cent.

In this year’s voters’ list, the figure has now touched 513, which is a rise of 27.61 per cent over the 2013 figure.

“If we compare this year’s figure with that of 2012, the percentage rise in the number of eunuch voters in West Bengal has gone up by 58.82 per cent. Yet a vast majority of eunuchs in the state still either do not feature in the electoral roll or are enrolled in the male/female category as had been the practice earlier,” said a senior official in the state CEO’s office. Eunuch votersThe officer said that while the already registered 513 “others” voters will be able to exercise their franchise this Lok Sabha polls, new names could be enrolled in the electoral roll in the continuous update process of the roll after the polls.

It was in 2009 that the Election Commission, at the initiative of the then Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Mr Navin Chawla, had first recognised eunuchs as a distinct category electors and started including their names in voters’ list as “others”.

Mr Chawla had taken the initiative after some students at the KIIT Law School in Bhubaneshwar had flagged the issue during a lecture by the CEC. A student at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai again raised the issue at close succession.

Mr Navin Chawla, former CEC of India.

Mr Navin Chawla, former CEC of India.

Following this, since no statuary amendment was needed, Mr Chawla presided over a full Election Commission bench, which gave a go ahead to include eunuchs as “others” category voters in electoral roll.
Even as the decision was taken in 2009, it took a few more years for the states to implement the change.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 19 April 2014 under a different headline.)

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More not the merrier this Lok Sabha elections


By bappaditya paul 

More the merrier but not this election! The election officials in West Bengal are keeping their fingers crossed over the high number of candidates in some of the Lok Sabha seats as this will require additional number of EVM ballot units, which the state do not have.EVMThere are 77,241 polling stations in West Bengal and keeping the mandatory 25 per cent EVMs in reserve to replace the malfunctioning ones during voting, the state requires a total of 98,615 EVMs for the five phase polls. Of them, 96,551 EVMs are needed for elections to the 42 Lok Sabha seats and the remaining 2,064 are meant for by-elections to the six Assembly seats to be held simultaneously.

As against this the state has 1,01,000 EVMs and going by simple calculation, it shall still have 2,385 spare EVMs. But this simple math has gone for a toss this election with the number of contestants crossing 15 in at least one Lok Sabha seat so far. The Malda South constituency that goes to the poll in the third phase on 30 April has 17 contestants.

An EVM consists of two parts ~ one ballot unit (BU) and one control unit (CU); one BU can accommodate a maximum 15 candidate names and the slot number 16 is designated for NOTA. Hence the number of candidates crossing 15 in a constituency means one additional BU will be needed for each of the polling stations in that constituency. In Malda South, the number of polling stations is 1,510 and the requirement for additional BU is 1,888, which the election officials has managed from the 2,385 EVMs that they had in spare. EVMBut the election officials in the state are anxious about the way out if the number of candidates crosses 15 in any of the remaining 23 Lok Sabha seats in state that are slated to vote in the fourth and fifth phase.

“After meeting the additional BU requirement in Malda South, we now have in hand only 497 spare EVMs. We will face severe difficulty even if one more Lok Sabha seat throws up more than 15 contestants; this is more so because on an average each of our Lok Sabha constituencies has 1,840 polling stations,” said an official posted in the office of the state Chief Electoral Officer (CEO).     CEO West BengalAnother official said that the EVM shortage surfaced due to the Election Commission’s decision to conduct by-polls in the six vacant Assembly seats in the state simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls and the failure on part of the Hyderabad-based PSU, the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), to supply the intended number of EVMs.

“ECIL was to supply us 15,000 EVMs by 31 March but so far they have provided only around 2,500. Had they supplied the full consignment, we conduct the polls in a relax mood,” the officer said.

ECIL logoTo cope with the situation, the state CEO office has now made a special arrangement with the Election Commission’s permission, to use the unused EVMs of one-phase polls in the later phases. For this, the CEO has issued a notification on 10 April. Furthermore, they are hoping to get 5,000 EVMs from ECIL next week.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 16 April 2014.)

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Star campaigner in Lok Sabha poll fray ‘to make for money’


By bappaditya paul
The former captain of the Indian soccer team, Baichung Bhutia, who is contesting the Lok Sabha polls from Darjeeling on a Trinamul Congress ticket, had campaigned for CPI-M’s Asok Bhattacharya in the 2006 Assembly poll and in return got plots in Siliguri and Kolkata at a highly subsidised rate.

Baichung Bhutia in a 2011 Assembly poll campaign for CPM's Asok Bhattacharya in Siliguri.

Baichung Bhutia in a 2011 Assembly poll campaign for CPM’s Asok Bhattacharya in Siliguri.

In 2006, Baichung had extensively campaigned for Mr Bhattacharya in areas such as Bagdogra and Champasari in Siliguri that are populated by the Nepali-speaking people. The CPI-M leader and former minister was then seeking re-election from the Siliguri Assembly seat, which he won with a margin of over 70,000 votes.

As a mark of gratitude, on 1 February 2008, the State Agricultural Marketing Board allotted a 1.3 bigha commercial plot in the Siliguri Regulated Market premises to Baichung’s firm ~ Free Kick Ventures Pvt Ltd ~ for starting a highway-styled petrol pump.
Free Kick Ventures Pvt Ltd had four partners ~ Baichung, his wife Madhuri Tipins, a Siliguri based businessman Manish Gautam and his wife. The firm got the plot on 30 years’ lease by making a one-time payment of only Rs 2 lakh and an annual rent of Rs 25,000.

At that time, although the state Agriculture Minister was Forward Bloc’s Naren Dey, Mr Bhattacharya had played a crucial role in ensuring that Baichung’s firm got the land lease.
But that’s not all.

Trinamul Darjeeling candidate Baichung Bhutia in 2014 poll campaign with Mamata Banerjee and Mithun Chakraborty.

Trinamul Darjeeling candidate Baichung Bhutia in 2014 poll campaign with Mamata Banerjee and Mithun Chakraborty.

Mr Bhattacharya, who was holding the portfolios of Municipal Affairs and Urban Development departments, had showered another gift on Baichung that he now laments. “I had allocated a five cottah residential plot to Baichung near Ruby Hospital on E M Bypass in Kolkata. He was charged a highly subsidised price at the rate of Rs 2 lakh per cottah; now the price of the same plot will not be less than Rs 2 crore,” the former CPI-M minister said over phone from Siliguri this morning.

“Baichung has now joined Trinamul as the North Bengal Development Minister Gautam Dev has allotted him a 16.30 acre plot at Matigara near Siliguri. This makes it amply clear that Baichung has got into the poll fray to make more money. That’s his only aim.” Mr Bhattacharya, however, avoided answering, if he had in 2006 misjudged the former soccer captain’s support for real.Baichung BhutiaDespite repeated calls made to his cell phone, Baichung did not respond for a reaction to the former minister’s comments.

Mr Binny Sharma, spokesperson of the Trinamul Congress Darjeeling Hill Unit said: “Mr Bhattacharya need not worry about why Baichung has joined politics. For the past one month, Baichung is roving the entire Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency enquiring about the problems people face here and he will surely address those issues once he is elected to Parliament.”

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This is a modified version of a news report that was first published in The Statesman on 15 April 2014).

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Kolkata activists in Mumbai to root for Medha Patkar

By bappaditya paul 
The Aam Aadmi Party may have failed to strike a chord with the people of Bengal but a group of frontline civil rights activists from Kolkata are now camping in Mumbai to campaign for fellow activist Medha Patkar who is in the poll fray as an AAP candidate from Mumbai North East Lok Sabha seat.Medha PatkarMr Amitava Mitra and Mr Kalyan Sengputa, who have long been associated with the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) of which Ms Patkar is the national convener, reached Mumbai today. Other activists from Kolkata such as Mr Avik Saha, Mr Tapas Kar and Mr Sujato Bhadra are expected to join them in a day or two.

The Mumbai North East Lok Sabha constituency goes to the polls on 24 April.

The rights group from Kolkata said they would specifically campaign among the Bengali-speaking voters of the constituency, which comprised the Assembly segments of Mulund, Vikhroli, Bhandup West, Ghatkopar West, Ghatkopar East and Mankhurd Shivaji Nagar.

Of them the suburban Ghatkopar West and Ghatkopar East segments have a sizable number of Bengali population, mostly from the low-income strata.

Mubmai North East Lok Sabha seat map.

Mubmai North East Lok Sabha seat map.

“We are going to Mumbai on our individual initiative to express solidarity for Medhaji with whom we have been working on social issues for a very long time. The plan is to campaign amongst the Bengali voters there and shoulder any other responsibility that might be given to us,” said Mr Sujato Bhadra who is associated with the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR).

On their first day in Mumbai, the Kolkata rights activists got a taste of the hardships that Ghatkopar residents face everyday. “We could not take a shower today for want of water. Water scarcity is a grave issue in Ghatkopar,” Mr Mitra said over the phone from Mumbai.

The Kolkata team has taken with them donations amounting to Rs 30,000 in cheques. Many more are sending their contribution to Ms Patkar’s election fund directly by post and through online transfer.

AAP symbolThe city’s rights activists however make it clear that their support is for Ms Patkar and not necessarily the AAP. “We are supporting Medhaji as we believe her election to the Parliament will bolster the civil rights movement in the country. As regards AAP, the party seemed to be not focusing on Bengal for now and has no organisation as such in the state,” Mr Mitra said clarifying that they will not campaign for AAP candidates in Bengal.

Of the four candidates that AAP has nominated from Barrackpore, Howrah, Kolkata North and Raigunj Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, only the one from Raigunj ~ Mr Pasarul Alam ~ is an active social rights activist.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report was first published in The Statesman on 13 April 2014 under a different headline.)

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Bengal seeks air ambulances during polls in LWE-hit areas


By bappaditya paul
Apprehensive of Maoist-induced violence during the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls in the state, West Bengal has sought from the Election Commission seven air ambulances to facilitate emergency evacuation of  polling personnel.Air ambulanceOf the seven air ambulances sought, the Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-hit districts alone have placed requisition for six; South 24-Parganas district has requisitioned one.

According to sources in the office of West Bengal Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), the poll panel had early this month asked them if the state would require any air ambulance during the polls. The CEO’s office in turn asked the districts to place their requirements.

Consequently, the three LWE-hit districts of Purulia and Bankura sought one air ambulance each and West Midnapore asked for four. South 24-Parganas also sought one air ambulance.

West Midnapore has sought the four air ambulances in batches of two in two phases when voting in the district is scheduled to take place. South 24-Parganas has sought the one air ambulance to be put in use for the remote polling stations located in the Sundarbans. Security personnel on poll dutyWhile Purulia and Bankura are scheduled to go to the polls on 7 May and South 24-Parganas on 12 May; voting in the three Lok Sabha constituencies in West Midnapore will take place in two phases on 7 May and 12 May.

The state CEO, Mr Sunil Kumar Gupta, said that his office has already forwarded the requisition to the Election Commission and was now awaiting a response. “We have placed the requisition but lets see how many we finally get. During the 2011 Assembly election in the state we had got two air ambulances,” he said.

The state officials are doubtful if they will get all the seven air ambulances as have been sought for. “No private or public medical facilities in West Bengal have air ambulances of their own. The Fortis and Apollo Hospital groups, which have branch hospitals in Kolkata, have air ambulances but those are based at their headquarters at Gurgaon and Chennai, respectively,” said an official.Election vehicles“Given this, it will not be easy to manage seven air ambulances, more so because other states have also placed their requirements to the Commission.”

Air ambulances are built on small aircraft or helicopters by equipping them with life-support medical equipments similar to the ones used in a road ambulance such as stretcher, oxygen cylinder, a two-way radio communication facility etc.

They can prove very crucial in saving the life of an injured poll personal through early evacuation to advanced healthcare facilities located in major cities.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 11 April 2014.)

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Lok Sabha polls: Why Bengal babus will rather play it safe


By bappaditya paul   

In the run up to the Lok Sabha polls, West Bengal Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) and the district election machineries under him may be facing sharp criticisms for failure to check the Trinamul Congress’ strong-arm tactics, but several experienced bureaucrats in the state opine that the CEO and his team should not be blamed entirely.Mamata BanerjeeThey are pointing to the way the Mamata Banerjee-led state government has treated several senior civil and police officers in the past three years for trying to stick to the rule book to the disadvantage of the ruling dispensation. They maintain that this should explain why the election machineries in the state this time were “playing it safe” vis-à-vis dealing with complaints against the ruling party.

Ever since the Trinamul Congress came to power in West Bengal in May 2011, at least 26 mid and senior level bureaucrats and police officers in the state have faced unceremonious removal from their posts. While several of them were sent on Compulsory Waiting; others were shunted to less significant posts.

The most remarkable among them include the transfer of upright IPS officer, Damayanti Sen, as Kolkata Police’s CP (crime) in February 2012 for contradicting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s claim that the Park Street rape was a “concocted incident”. Polling boothThen came the unceremonious removal of the Kolkata Police Commissioner R K Pachnanda in February 2013 for acting tough against Trinamul Congress-backed hooligans who had shot dead a policeman during a campus violence at Garden Reach.

Mr Umapada Chatterjee, the state’s director of information, was removed in mid 2013 for clearing advertisement dues to Ganashankti, a vernacular daily published by the CPI-M.

This was followed by the removal of the Siliguri Police Commissioner K Jayaraman and the state’s registrar of publications Bishmoy Roy, at close successions in December 2013.

Mr Jayaraman was removed for arresting the district magistrate of Malda, G Kiran Kumar. in multi-crore graft case at the Siliguri Jalpaiguri Development Authority (SJDA); Mr Roy was shunted out for standing by a insecticide sprayer who was falsely implicated in an alleged arson bid at Writers’ Buildings that was later found to be a hoax. Both these officers are still on Compulsory Waiting.    Nabanna in Howrah ~ Bengal's new seat of power“Given the happenings of the past three years, which officer will dare take the ruling Trinamul Congress head-on, especially during a Lok Sabha poll? All the officers know, after the election, they will be again at the mercy of the state government of Miss Banerjee,” said a senior bureaucrat on conditions of anonymity.

“The 2011 Assembly election was different, as the Left Front was an outgoing government and a strong anti-incumbency blowing in the state. Hence, the bureaucrats could act without any fear and favour,” he added.

Going by the Section 28 (A) of the Representation of the People Act 1951, all government officials involved with election are deemed on deputation to the Election Commission (EC) for the entire election process and the EC can take disciplinary action against them for inaction or bias.

But once an election is over, all officers will again come under the full control of the state government, who will decide on their postings, promotions and all other employment related issues. ECI headquarters in New DelhiA senior EC official however maintained that the poll panel has powers to debar a civil or police officer from all future election duties.

“Debarring an officer from election duty means that she or he will have to be removed from posts such as DM, ADM, SDO, BDO, SP and ASP etc before every elections as these are notified positions that play a crucial role in the electoral process and this really counts,” the EC official said.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 6 April 2014.)

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EC brings 11 more Bengal LS constituencies under police observer watch


In view of the Opposition’s allegations of Trinamul strong-arm tactics, the Election Commission (EC) has brought 11 more Parliamentary constituencies in the state under the purview of the police observers.

West Bengal PoliceThe police observers will keep an eye on the functioning of the police in the run up to the polls and will finalise the deployment of security forces during the election, including that of the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF).

The Commission had earlier on 21 March named eight police observers for nine Parliamentary constituencies in the state out of the total 42. On that occasion, while seven police observers were assigned one constituency each, one observer was given the charge of two constituencies, that is, the Burdwan East and Burdwan-Durgupar.

In its latest order issued on 1 April, the poll panel has now brought 11 more constituencies under watch but without raising the numbers of the police observers. The eight police observers named already, will now look after 21 constituencies spread over the nine districts of Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan, Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore, Hooghly and the South and North 24-Parganas.Map-of-West-BengalPost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, most of these districts are considered Trinamul Congress strongholds and there have recent instances of the ruling party leaders issuing direct or indirect threats to the Opposition.

The Trinamul Birbhum district president Anubrata Mondal asking party supporters to “poison CPI-M workers as is done to rats” and the Trinamul sitting MP from Dum Dum Saugata Roy advising party workers to capture poll booths and warn CPI-M cadres to refrain from electioneering, are two major examples.

The 11 new constituencies that have been brought under the purview of police observers are ~ Behrampore and Jangipur in Murshidabad, Bolpur in Birbhum, Arambagh in Hooghly, Asansol in Burdwan, Ghatal in West Midnapore, Bishnupur in Bankura, Mathurapur and Jadavpur in South 24-Parganas, Barrackpore and Dum Dum in North 24-Parganas. Of them, Bolpur is considered the fiefdom of Anubrata Mondal, while Saugata Roy is in the Lok Sabha poll fray from Dum Dum.ECI headquarters in New DelhiWith the latest changes, police observer Mr Indu Kumar Bhusan will now look after Behrampore, Mushidabad and Jangipur, Mr A Natarajan Bolpur and Birbhum, Mr Padmakar Santu Ranpise Hooghly, Burdwan East and Burdwan-Durgapur, Mr Kripa Nand Tripathi Ujela Purulia and Asansol, Mr Niket Kaushik Arambagh, Ghatal and Midnapore, Mr L C Bhartiya Bankura and Bishnupur, Mr A K Singh Joynagar, Mathurapur and Jadavpur, and Mr Arpit Shukla will be responsible for Bongaon, Barrackpore and Dum Dum.

The police observers will start arriving in the state from 5 April and send law and reports directly to the EC in New Delhi.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report was first published in The Statesman on 4 April 2014.)


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