Biggest challenge is to restore public faith: Mizoram's EC CEO
As rival parties fight a bitter poll battle to grab power in this north-eastern hill state, Mizoram's new chief electoral officer has said the "biggest challenge" for him has been to restore public faith in the election process after intense protests by civil society and political groups against his predecessor.
Ashish Kundra, who took charge as the new CEO after S B Shashank was removed amid protests over allowing Bru voters lodged in Tripura relief camps to vote from there, personally visited the bordering Kanhmun village twice after taking charge to oversee the arrangements despite appointing a six-member high-powered team, including an IAS and an IPS officer, for this job.
In his first interview after taking over on November 15, Kundra told PTI that the challenge for him was also to ensure that the integrity of the election machinery is not questioned in Mizoram, which will have polling on Wednesday to elect 40 legislators.
"The biggest challenge, to begin with, was to restore the confidence and trust of the civil society in the institution of the election machinery and to ensure that the integrity of the election machinery is not questioned in the minds of the general electorate," he said on-board a chopper travelling from Aizawl to Kanhmun.
To handle this issue peacefully, the challenge was to make an arrangement of voting, which is acceptable to both Mizo civil society and Bru refugees, and is also done in a short span of time, Kundra said.
"I interacted with the joint forum of the NGOs soon after taking charge. I interacted with all political parties. Even in Kanhmun village, I interacted with civil society. That created a bit of positivity, which was much required in the given circumstances," he added.
Declining to comment on decisions made by his predecessor Shashank, Kundra said the series of events that took place in recent times was "very unfortunate".
"It is, I think, rather unprecedented. It is also kind of unprecedented that there would be an assault on the election machinery itself, which has been functioning so perfectly for the last so many decades," he said.
After reaching Kanhmun, which is about 190 km from Aizawl and takes around eight hours by road, Kundra along with his team comprising Additional CEO Krishna Mohan Uppu and Deputy CEO H Lianzela held a series of meetings at a tourist lodge with the six-member team, police and civil society bodies.
The team also visited special polling booths, examined the border areas and also went about a kilometre inside Tripura to check the point of getting down from vehicles for the people coming in to vote.
Talking about arrangements at Kanhmun village, Kundra said that 15 special polling booths have been set up for voting by 11,967 Bru refugees, who are part of nine Assembly constituencies in three districts of Mizoram.
As per the directions of the Election Commission, a special team has been formed under Kumar Abhishek, who has been flown in from Delhi after the crisis, while Assistant Inspector General of Police (Training) Devesh has been made in-charge of security arrangements.
The Election Commission overnight airdropped Bhuvanesh Yadav, the Special Secretary of Higher Education to Chhattisgarh government, on Sunday as an observer for these 15 booths in view of the sensitivities involved.
"Today is the second time I have visited Kanhmun along with our team. I am perfectly satisfied with the arrangements that have been made to establish the polling stations as directed by the Commission. The local community, which is the Young Mizo Association (YMA), they have been more than supportive," Kundra said.
The Mizoram CEO office has arranged transportation for refugees as six camps in the neighbouring state are situated at varying distance of 6-60 km from the border and there is no regular public transport available.
Expecting a "reasonable turnout from the Bru camps", Kundra said he and his team last week went to the largest camp inside Tripura and interacted with Bru leaders, who were initially reluctant to come to Kanhmun for voting, but later agreed to it as part of a mutually reached solution to the crisis.
Talking about general preparedness while on the way back to the temporary helipad at Zawlnuam near Kanhmun, Kundra said: "I have reviewed the preparations across the state. I am confident that the team of district election officers are fully geared up to deliver free, fair and peaceful elections."
Over 11,000 people are involved in this exercise of elections that includes civil administration, polling parties, police personnel and others, he said.
Asked about the EVM and VVPAT back-ups, he said: "We have adequate backup stocks for any replacements. Usually, about 30 per cent is back-up, but in some remote areas polling parties are given 100 per cent back up also because it is difficult to transport in case of a failure."
During the entire election process, only two show-cause notices have been served -- one each to Congress and MNF -- for not intimating the administration about the distribution of some pamphlets.
For polling on Wednesday, the Election Commission is likely to incur an expenditure of about Rs 30 crore, Kundra said.
"Mizoram not only has the history of holding most peaceful and fair elections, but the election expenditure is also one of the lowest in the country," the IAS officer from Chandigarh said after disembarking from the chopper at Aizawl.
(With inputs from agencies.)