Of Lok Sabha elections, voter turnout in India
Of Lok Sabha Elections, Voter Turnout In India. Staring up at the steep and lifeless brown ridges looming over the valley, Gulzar Ahmad Dar, a boyish and chatty Kashmiri policeman, sighed at having drawn a short straw.
Markha Valley, India: Staring up at the steep and lifeless brown ridges looming over the valley, Gulzar Ahmad Dar, a boyish and chatty Kashmiri policeman, sighed at having drawn a short straw.
"What miserable luck I have," he said, peering down the funnel of mountains toward the village of Markha, his destination, 22 grueling miles away. "But somebody had to get this place, no?"
Dar, 25, was the youngest in a group of five government employees randomly assigned by a computer to election duty in this exceedingly remote valley. The members of this polling team, like all the others across the country, were plucked from their day jobs and given the temporary but vital task of ensuring free and fair voting.
Voting ended Monday in the six-week exercise - the largest election in history - which included more than 800 million registered voters casting ballots in fetid slums and on palm-fringed beaches, from sultry, monsoon-drenched forests to the hostile windswept barrens of India's craggy northern edge. (Read: India Sets New Record For Voter Turnout)
Much attention has rightly been focused on the contest between Narendra Modi, the leader of the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been far ahead in the polls, and Rahul Gandhi, the prince of India's most famous political family and reluctant leader of the Indian National Congress, which seems headed for a historic defeat. (Narendra Modi on Course for Election Victory, Exit Polls Show)
But the sheer logistics of getting a ballot into the hands of every voter in a nation as large and diverse as India are daunting. Few places are as formidable on that front as the Markha Valley, in the district of Leh, a predominantly Buddhist region high on the Tibetan Plateau, spanning 17,375-square miles of rugged alpine desert.
In most of the rest of this crowded country, every 1,000 voters warrant a polling booth, but in Leh, only four of its 274 settlements would fit that bill. Instead, local officials hew more closely to the election commission's rule that voters cannot be required to travel more than 1 1/4 miles to their polling station. In this sparsely populated region where clusters of families live in isolated hamlets, that means some stations have as few as a dozen voters.
None of the five-man team had ever been to the Markha Valley, or hiked anywhere near as far as it takes to reach the 12,500-foot-high village of the same name from the end of a road in the aptly named village of Chilling, at the valley's bottom.
Aside from Dar, the team represented departments not usually accustomed to physical exertion: Ali Asad, a quick-witted and short-tempered technical officer from Public Works; Tsewang Gyaltson, an accountant from Handicrafts whose cool head offset Asad's; Thinless Angchok, a quiet and introspective teacher at a government elementary school; and Tashi Wangdan, the stoic and grave presiding officer, who, despite being a high school lecturer in political science, reflected on the prospect of traipsing up the valley for just 114 voters by remarking, more to himself than anyone else, "My, this democracy thing is stupid, isn't it?"
Dar chimed in. "All they've got here is dry hills. Not even a bit of green," he said. Then, referring to the trekking enthusiasts from the West who are crucial to the valley's economy, using its guides, guesthouses, and packhorses, Dar asked, "Why do the white people even come here?"
The Markha Valley's beauty is of the desolate kind, and hiking mile after mile over sand and the rounded rocks of its riverbed is hard on the feet of people who sit behind desks most days. Its pointy brown slopes appear like so many stegosaurus backs in a row, guarding the approach to the dinosaur king's throne.
As the sun slowly unlocks frigid water from the icy caps above, the valley's residents give what modest arable land they have its first tilling, chanting while they plow and rake. Into the ground go barley seeds, a hardy, nutritious and durable grain that can last over the long winter when people here light fires, stay indoors and slowly whittle away at their food stores until the next spring. This is not a land of plenty; people here, after eating all the meat and cartilage off a bone, crack it to suck out the marrow.
The village of Markha itself is but a few dozen beige mud-brick homes, sitting on a slight promontory, almost invisible against the brown backdrop. Livestock outnumber people. At night, it is as if all the stars in the sky gather here, the rest of the world having slowly abandoned them. One barely notices the moon among all that starlight.
To get there, though, is an arduous task. As the polling team gazed across the muddy Zanskar River at Chilling, what was ahead began to dawn on them. Each wore his city shoes. Not one had a proper hiking backpack, so the team opted to pool money to rent a pony to carry the luggage.
With no bridge to cross the Zanskar, a major tributary of the Indus, the team, electronic voting machines clutched to their chests, crossed the river one by one using a hand-pulled trolley much like a zip line with a wooden crate attached.
By nightfall, the team still had not reached its destination. For more than five hours, locals heading downriver had been saying that the village was only two hours away. It had already been 10 hours of hiking, and a decision was made to stay at a guesthouse - a plan quickly foiled when its proprietor promptly informed the team that she had no safe shelter for the pony, and that two days earlier, snow leopards had been sighted in the area.
And so the men plodded along in the dim moonlight until they came upon a stream bursting with the day's snowmelt - so much that it had taken out the rock bridge crossing it. With no choice but to push on to Markha, the exhausted workers took off their shoes, rolled up their pants, held hands and waded through the waist-high water.
There was little sign that anything extra had been spent on this polling team's excursion, besides transportation to and from Chilling. The team gathered water from natural springs and accepted bread from the homesteads that dotted the path, like oases.
But bringing democracy to these places is not cheap. Simrandeep Singh, the top official in Leh district, said that his office had already spent more than $1,665 per voter, with most of the money going into fuel and voting awareness campaigns in distant corners of the district. Every home in the district was sent an invitation card inviting them to vote on May 7, and many of those locations were only reachable by helicopter.
Singh said that was probably the highest expenditure per voter in the country, but that reaching every voter was essential.
"People in other parts of the country - Mumbai, Delhi - they have their own festivals, and we have ours," he said. "But that atmosphere, that democratic euphoria, that brings us together. This election is the only festival in which the entire country is bothered."
In Markha, though, Tsetan Dolkar, 34, the owner of a guesthouse, said her village had tried to take advantage of multiparty democracy, but so far had seen no results.
"We've tried in the past two elections to vote as a block for whoever will win, so that they will remember us and build us a road," she said. "Both parties always make promises. Elections for us have always been about getting a road."
After going all-in twice, once with the Indian National Congress and then the Bharatiya Janata Party, Markha remains roadless. The anxiety of what to do if someone falls gravely ill hovers constantly.
Dolkar said there were mixed feelings about this election. Her father, Tashi Largyal, said: "A vote is like money. It's like power. And we have very little of all those things."
As polling closed on Wednesday evening, however, 100 out of 114 voters had cast their ballots, officials reported. At 88 percent turnout, Markha is not ready to give up just yet.
- The New York Times