Polls in the time of a pandemic: Bihar’s most expensive election needs less time, more resources

Masks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitisers will have to be provided to the approximately 13.8 lakh security and polling personnel. Gloves will also have to be given to each of the state's 7,21,00,000 voters.   

With 7.3 crore voters, the upcoming Legislative Assembly election in Bihar is not only the first major electoral exercise in India since the Covid-19 outbreak, but the largest anywhere in the world so far.

The Election Commission’s decision to hold polls on time amid a raging pandemic has set off a chain of firsts for the state.

For starters, this is going to be the shortest Assembly election in 15 years. Polling will be held in just three phases, as opposed to five in 2015 and four in 2005. In 2000, Bihar and Jharkhand were one state.

To maintain social distancing, the Commission has capped the maximum number of voters per booth at 1,000 — down from 1,500 in 2015. This has prompted a 60% increase in the number of polling stations — from 65,367 in 2015 to 1,06,526. More polling stations means more polling personnel. According to an EC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Commission will have to depute roughly an additional 2 lakh personnel this time.

But holding an election during a pandemic will need more than just increasing polling stations and polling personnel. The mandatory COVID-related precautions will make this Bihar Assembly election the most expensive ever for the state, according to sources. For the roughly 7.6 lakh polling personnel, the Commission will need the same number of masks, hand sanitiser bottles, pair of gloves, and face shields. The same things will be provided to the approximately 6.2 lakh security personnel (including central and state police forces) to be deployed. Gloves will also have to be given to each of the state’s 7,21,00,000 voters.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Bihar CEO HR Srinivasa said he did not wish to disclose the estimated expenditure on Bihar polls, especially the new expenses on account of COVID-19 precautions. “I can only say that adequate arrangement of funds has been made to take care of the additional expenses,” he said.

Election campaigning is expected to be subdued this time, with the EC imposing limits and restrictions to avoid crowding. For instance, it has capped the size of the campaign squad to five people for door-to-door visits and allowed only five cars, instead of 10, in a candidate’s convoy for roadshows. Only two people will accompany a candidate for filing her nomination papers.

Although the EC has permitted physical campaigning for candidates and political parties — while following social distancing norms — it has said the maximum number of attendees at a rally or a gathering should not “exceed the limit prescribed by State Disaster Management Authority for public gatherings”.

On the day of voting, masks, and temperature check of all voters at the polling station, will be compulsory. COVID-19 patients and suspected cases will be allowed to vote in the “last hour of the poll day”. Others will have to wear gloves mandatorily before pressing the button on the EVM.

COVID-related precautions

On the day of polling:

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