BY VISHAL GULATI
Shimla/Manali– Widespread snow and extreme cold climatic conditions in the higher reaches of Himachal Pradesh on Thursday has not impacted arrangements for the Assembly polls on Saturday, say election officials.
Even the voters are gung-ho over their participation in record despite extreme climatic conditions.
Officials told IANS that at a majority of 92 polling stations for a population of 31,538 in Lahaul-Spiti district — out of the state’s 7,881 booths — there was widespread overnight snowfall.
The polling booths in the district, a cold desert dotted by tiny helmets spread over the Himalayan peaks, adjoining Tibet, are scattered over rugged and inhospitable terrain where poll officials have to trek hours to reach there.
“The polling material has already reached all polling stations across the state, including the remotest stations,” Neeraj Kumar, officer on special duty with the state election department, told IANS in Shimla.
He said the election staff at the far-off polling booths would reach by Friday, a day ahead of the election.
“Our election staff is highly motivated. So are the electorates. This time we will see a record polling of over 80 per cent,” he added.
In the 2017 Assembly polls, a record 75.57 per cent polling, highest in four decades, was experienced.
At that time too the Congress and the BJP were locked in a straight contest.
Electorates of remote Kinnaur, Chamba and Lahaul-Spiti districts, part of the sprawling Mandi parliamentary constituency that covers almost two-thirds of the state, have a special place in the history of democracy in independent India as they were the first to exercise their franchise months ahead of the rest of the nation for the first general elections between December 1951 and February 1952.
This was done to ensure that snowfall did not deprive the tribals of the privilege of exercising their franchise.
“Till early 1990’s there were no proper roads. The ballot boxes were transported on horseback,” said octogenarian Tashi Tenzing of Tholang village in the Lahaul Valley.
Gian Bodh, a school teacher, from Nako village in Kinnaur, said: “I still remember my grandfather trudging to reach the nearby polling station located some 20 km from our house. Now it is located in the village itself.”
As per the records of the state election department, Shyam Saran Negi, 106, was the first voter of independent India who cast his vote at the polling booth in Kinnaur’s Kalpa village on October 25, 1951.
Just three days after casting his 34th vote for the forthcoming polls, he passed away at his native place on November 5.
Kinnaur district also boasts of the polling station with the least number of voters in the state. “The Kaa polling station near Yangthang has just six voters – the lowest in the state,” chief electoral officer Maneesh Garg said.
Octogenarian Durga Negi, a retired teacher from Tashigang, located at 15,256 feet in Spiti valley, said: “Earlier we used to walk miles to cast votes. Now the better road network has made the polling station accessible.”
Located close to the India-China border, the polling station at Tashigang covers 52 voters of Tashigang and Gete villages.
Himachal Pradesh’s highest polling station in Chask Bhatori village in Bharmour assembly, located at an altitude of 4,500 metre, where the polling party has to trudge 14-km arduous journey to reach there.
Garg said 26 people are eligible to cast their votes at the Chask Bhatori, situated at an altitude of 4,500 metres in Sechu panchayat of the Pangi tribal area.
The Election Department has set up 7,881 polling stations for the November 12 polls to the 68-member Assembly.
The poll material for Bara Bhangal, located 65 km from the last village which is connected by road, in Kangra district was airlifted.
Bara Bhangal, accessible by foot through the Thamsar Pass at an altitude of 4,700 metres has a population of around 470 voters.
Most of them migrated to Bir, near Palampur town, some 250 km from state capital Shimla, during the winter. The Election Commission has set up a polling booth in Bara Bhangal for 100 voters.
Kangra, the state’s largest district, has 1,625 polling stations, while Lahaul-Spiti district has the lowest of 92.
There are 7,235 polling stations in rural areas and 646 in urban areas, an official statement said.
For the Assembly elections, three auxiliary polling stations — Sidhbari (Dharamsala), Bara Bhangal (Baijnath) and Dhillon (Kasauli) — will also be set up.
Chamba, a remote district, has the maximum number of 1,459 voters in the Manola polling station in Dalhousie, while Bharmour has only 84 voters.
Kangra having 15 constituencies has the highest 1,511 voters in Sidhabari, while the lowest polling station is Kalangan in Nurpur having 75 voters. The remotest polling station in the district is Manch in the Shahpur constituency where the polling party has to walk 7 km.
Another remote district, Lahaul-Spiti, has 811 voters in Kaza, while Lingar has only 38 voters.
In Kullu district, the Manali constituency has Chichonga polling station with 1,305 voters, while Banjar’s polling station Tilga has the least number of 89 voters. For the Shakti polling station in Banjar assembly, polling parties have to trudge 10 km.
Mandi, the second largest district having 10 Assembly seats, has the highest 1,403 voters in the Chaugan polling station under the Sundernagar constituency, while the lowest 95 voters at the Jarathu polling station.
Manjhagan is the remote polling station in the district where the polling party has to walk 10 km to reach there.
The Hamirpur constituency has the highest number of 1,283 voters in the Swahal polling station, while the Barsar constituency has the lowest number of 105 voters at Balh Dhatwalian polling station.
Comprising eight assembly constituencies, Shimla district has maximum 1,298 voters in the Charoli polling station in Chopal assembly, while only the Summerhill polling station under the Shimla (Urban) constituency has the minimum of 33 voters. The polling party has to cover a distance of 7 km to reach Pandar, a remote polling booth in the Rohru constituency.
A total of 55,92,828 electors, which includes 67,559 service electors and 22 NRIs, are eligible to exercise their franchise. The ballots will be counted on December 8. (IANS)