As Manipur readies to vote for a new Assembly, the state Chief Electoral Officer Vivek Kumar Dewangan is an extremely busy man. The 1993-batch IAS officer assumed his new role in August last year. Dewangan was serving as the commerce and industries commissioner prior to his role in the poll body. Manipur votes in two phases on 4 and 8 March for its 60-member Assembly. Almost perennially in a state of strife, the ongoing economic blockade, the tensions between the hills and plains districts and the many militant groups only makes this democratic exercise in Manipur even harder. Steering the whole election process from his unenviable position, Dewangan, an IIT Delhi alumni, shares with Firstpost the details of the road that lies ahead. Edited excerpts:
How is the security situation in Manipur in light of the differences between the Nagas, the government and many active underground groups?
The chief secretary held an elaborate meeting with all stakeholders on January 24. Representatives from the army, police and paramilitary forces were present to take stock of the situation. Two hundred and fifty companies of Central Armed Police Force will be here to help us conduct the elections securely. Of the 250 companies, 44 are already here because of the economic blockade. We are expecting 206 more companies as the election draws closer.
What will be the impact of economic blockade and the different roadblocks in the state? Will you be able to move in all requisite infrastructure in time for the polls?
We are ready to hold the polls. All our infrastructure is in place. Earlier, we thought that the state would have a single phase polling. So we already had everything in place. But luckily for us, polling will take place in two phases. Besides, as the state is going to the polls in March, we have an extra month, which has helped even more.
What about the seven new districts that were recently announced? Will they pose a logistical challenge?
The Election Commission has made it clear that the district election officers who were assigned to the earlier districts will continue their work in the new districts. The new deputy commissioners are not empowered as returning officers. These new deputy commissioners won't be in the picture as far as this round of Assembly election is concerned. Everything is in place. We are not expecting any difficulties so far as the formation of the new districts are concerned.
Manipur is a state known for the divide between the hills and the valley. What will be more challenging — the hills or the plains?
All constituencies in Manipur are challenging. Each of them has their own unique problems. But as per the orders of the Election Commission, we are committed to fulfilling the constitutional mandate and holding free and fair elections.
What kind of voter turnout are you expecting?
Manipur, traditionally, has had a very high voter turnout. In the last Assembly election, the voting percentage was 79.19 percent. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it was 66.4 percent. We are hoping that this time around, voter turnout will cross 80 percent.
Is the Election Commission taking any specific steps to encourage more people to vote?
We have started a systematic voter education programme, which we are taking to the streets. This time, there are 55,000 new voters. To motivate these voters, we are targeting the higher secondary schools and colleges. We are focusing on ethical voting and trying to ensure more participation. In 2012, there were 17,48,399 voters in the state. We are focusing on social media as well. We are updating our website on a regular basis and keeping everyone updated through our Facebook and Twitter accounts. To mark National Voters' Day on 25 January, we launched an app called E-Manipur Election, which is available on Google Play. We are getting a great response from young voters. The good thing about Manipur is that mobile penetration is huge. Manipur has a population of 33 lakh — 24 lakh people in Manipur have cellphones — of which 19 lakh are voters. We are attempting to get as many of these numbers so we can send them messages that inspire them to vote.
What about women voters? Is the Election Commission taking specific steps to increase the number of women voters?
In Manipur, when it comes to voting, the gender equation favours women. That's the unique thing about Manipur. As per the 2011 Census, there are 987 females per 1,000 males in the state. However, on our electoral rolls, we have 1,044 females per 1,000 men. Women are making great strides in Manipur. We hope that this time, even more women will participate in the election.
What about the cost of conducting the polls?
As this is an Assembly poll and a one-off election, the cost will be entirely borne by the state. Had it coincided with the Lok Sabha election, the cost would have been shared equally by the state and Centre. If it had been just the Lok Sabha election, the Centre would have paid for the expense.
What about the seizure of cash and keeping the election clean?
On January 24, an investigation team of income tax officials from Guwahati seized Rs 6.75 lakh. We have increased our vigil. Our flying squads are conducting raids.
What makes this poll different?
The spirit is different. It is a festival of democracy. Be it the voters or the candidates, we are taking everyone on board. So far, the response has been great.
Updated Date: Jan 27, 2017 08:59 AM