Frontline workers of Election Commission are under-paid and over-burdened, a new study shows
Bengaluru: Ten years after the institution of the booth level officer (BLO) was set up by the Election Commission of India (EC), many of these officers remain under-paid, ill-trained, and over-burdened, a recent study by the not-for-profit Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy based on interviews with 1,107 BLOs across 21 cities has found.
Over the past decade, voter list management in the world’s largest democracy has come to rest on the shoulders of the BLOs. These frontline workers of the EC have emerged as the key interface between voters and the EC, helping collect data on voters as well as verifying their claims and requests. Each BLO is in charge of an area with roughly 1,000-1,200 voters, called a polling part. Usually occupying full-time government jobs, 900,000 such officers across the country help the EC minimize errors in electoral rolls.
However, the BLO system is facing severe challenges, the Janaagraha study finds. Often, the information about the BLO is not available online and even when available, the information is often erroneous. A majority of BLOs are not residents of the polling parts they are allotted, and have to travel for long to reach those parts. They receive very meagre compensation for their efforts, and are not adequately trained. All these issues directly impact the quality of voter lists across the country, the report notes.
The data collected by Janaagraha shows that of the 9,833 BLO contact numbers tried across the 21 cities, less than a quarter could be reached. The BLO numbers were accessed from the websites of the EC and the local chief electoral officers in each region.
Surveys for 18 of the 21 cities were conducted between December 2016 and March 2017. For three cities—Bengaluru, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram—data was collected in April-July period in 2016. Some of the data available for the 18 cities surveyed later are not available for these three cities.
Among the BLOs interviewed, an overwhelming majority were either teachers or Aanganwadi workers. This goes against EC’s guidelines, which recommend against this practice since these workers are over-burdened. They are often forced to be part of a large number of government projects and data collection exercises.
Bhubaneshwar, Pune and Ahmedabad had the highest share of teachers as BLOs while Mumbai reported the lowest. However, the figures for Mumbai may not be representative since they are based on a smaller sample compared to most other cities.
While the EC recommends that to ensure efficiency, the BLOs must be trained at least once a year, in seven of 19 cities for which data is available, more than a tenth of BLOs were not trained even once in the year-ago period. Around a third of all BLOs hadn’t been provided with a BLO register and handbook, considered essential for maintenance of voter lists.
The EC guidelines specify that a BLO should be a registered voter in his polling part, but 51% of the sampled BLOs were found to be living away from their polling parts. Some of them had to travel long distances to their allotted parts. The numbers suggest that many BLOs may not be very familiar with the territory they are expected to serve, defeating the key purpose behind this system.
Strikingly, only 68% of BLOs had been paid anything in the past year. The average amount paid to these BLOs was only Rs 3,834, lower than the EC mandated honorarium of Rs 6,000.
The only silver lining is that despite the lack of incentives and the hard work involved, most BLOs claimed to be ‘very satisfied’ or ‘extremely satisfied’ with their role.