Conducting elections in Ladakh is an uphill task. Before embarking with his team to set up a polling station, Iqbal Tak was mindful of the difficulties along the way: the region is sparsely populated and tiny villages are nestled in the hills, several kilometres apart.
Tak’s task as a presiding officer was to establish one of the region’s highest polling stations, in Fastan village, amid the Karakoram range, so that its 29 voters, three more than the previous elections in 2014, could exercise their franchise. Fastan is adjacent to the Siachen Glacier with no road access or mobile communication network.
While planning the logistics, Tak was reminded of an incident when an election team trekked to the wrong polling station on the eve of voting. It is said that the group had to trudge through the night to reach the right station. “There was no one to ask for directions,” he said.
With more than 183 high-altitude polling stations between 8,000 and 15,000 feet, many lacking road access and communication networks, polling officials must climb the mountains if not airlifted by the Indian Air Force. The highest polling station, at nearly 15,000 feet, for the twin villages of Anlay Pho, is located close to the Line of Actual Control between India and China.
“Just look at your track and ignore the height,” Abdul Rahim said while maintaining his balance along the narrow path on the steep slopes on May 4,as he faced away from the thousands-of-feet-deep gorge to his right. Rahim was one of the two policemen assigned for providing security to Tak’s team at the polling station in Fastan.
That morning, three polling units boarded a bus in Leh town, over 180 km away, to begin a slow journey through one of the world’s highest motorable passes, the Khardung La. More than eight hours later, the team was dropped on an unmotorable road on the fringes of the Nubra Valley.
From the road, a narrow track of loose sand and rocks went down a steep slope, curving around to a sand slide. With every step producing a sinking feeling, the sand below the feet slid towards the gorge. One wrong move would have meant slipping to certain death.
The team abandoned a few water bottles and blankets at a rock shelter to loosen some load. Besides carrying the voting machines, members of Tak’s group were hauling their own bedding and food supplies for three days, including 15 kg of rice and a few dozen flatbread along with raw chicken and mutton.
As the altitude increased again from the rock shelter, the winds became stronger and colder. For outsiders not used to the unsparing terrain and weather or acclimated to the dizzying heights, the choices were either risking the trek ahead or doubling back to safety.
For the polling staff, however, returning was not an option.
From the rock shelter, Tak said after coming back from Fastan, the journey ahead involved multiple ups and downs until the team finally spotted the village from a distance.
“At first, the sight was a relief, but it was farther than we had anticipated and the climb was the steepest so far,” he said. “It was already dark and we were using the lights from our phones to trace the tracks of our colleagues.” Tak and polling officer Nasrullah Khan reached Fastan at around 9 pm—half an hour after the rest of their team— having begun their journey at 4.30 pm. “But it turned out that the school (where the polling station was to be set up) was another 200 feet away,” said Tak. “At that point, even our phones felt too heavy to hold.”
On the day of the polls, May 6, the first voter validating the team’s hard work was 94-year-old Thumsay Wangail, who walked to the polling station just outside the small village of elderly farmers and young men who work as porters at the Siachen Glacier. By the end of polling, 23 of Fastan’s 29 voters had cast their vote.
It was a similar but smoother story in the nearby Sunido village, where four polling officials, three police and two Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel were deputed for 22 voters in a village of 26.
Regardless of who wins the elections, the polling teams of Ladakh prevailed over nature’s extremes to do their job. “Our responsibility,” said Tak, “was to conduct polling whether it was raining or snowing or even if someone had fallen off a cliff.”
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