Democracy's reach: An 11-km trek for election staff in Bengal (Election Special)
A long 11-km arduous trek, accomanied by ponies, awaits poll officials as the Election Commission gears up to hold the Lok Sabha election at the remote booth of Srikhola in the mountainous terrains of northern West Bengal's Darjeeling district.
At a height of 2,800 m above sea level, Srikhola houses the highest polling booth in West Bengal. The village is nearly 100 km southwest of Darjeeling town.
With no motorable roads, electricity or drinking water supply, reaching the booth at Srikhola Primary School under the Bijonbari block involves the 11-km stiff climb from Rimbick.
"Starting from Darjeeling, the first 60 km is covered by car, the next 29 km by two-wheeler, before trekking becomes the only option," Pushpak Roy, officer-in-charge, election, Darjeeling, told IANS.
The polling material is carried on the back of ponies, with locals acting as the guide on the treacherous mountain route.
Compared to the Lok Sabha polls five years back, the voter count has gone up by over 15 percent at Srikhola inhabited by hill tribes like lepchas, sherpas, tamangs and limbus.
While the booth had 730 eligible voters in 2009, the strength now is 841, including 395 women.
About five km from Srikhola stands another remote booth, Daragaon, at a height of 2,600 m above sea level.
The number of electors at Daragaon has however dipped sharply from 1,120 in 2009 to the present strength of 841, including 416 women.
The Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency is scheduled to go to the hustings April 17.
"The polling officials will have to start on April 15 and reach the booth on election eve. They will carry electric charger, light, generator, candles and lanterns," Roy said.
Besides these two booths under the Lodama police station, there are 17 other polling stations in the neighbouring Kalimpong hills which are difficult to reach.
Ajit Karmakar, who was presiding officer at the Daragaon booth during the previous Lok Sabha election in 2009, recalled that he had fallen sick after the gruelling trek.
"We left our car at Ringbit and started walking. Ponies were not available that day. So we had to walk. It took us four hours," Karmakar said.
"There was no light. I couldn't even charge my mobile. So, the authorities sent someone from neighbouring Sikkim with a mobile charger.
"Another problem was food. There are no eating joints. So, we had to take our food at the house of a villager," Karmakar told IANS.
Gajendra Gurung, a voter at Daragaon in his late 30s, sounded upbeat. "We will definitely vote. It is our right".
S. Dorje Sherpa, 26, was ecstatic at former Indian soccer captain Bhaichung Bhutia being in the fray.
"We may be living at a remote place. But we always vote. And this time we have two heavyweights (in Trinamool nominee Bhaichung Bhhutia and Bharatiya Janata Party's S.S. Ahluwalia). That's great. I have always been a great fan of Bhaichung."
(Posted on 03-04-2014)