This is Bablu Kaibarta’s second chance to vote in a general election.

When Bablu went to cast his vote for the first time in the last elections, the officials let him through. He didn’t have to wait in any queue. But once he went into the polling booth in the village of Palma in West Bengal’s Purulia district, Bablu was not sure how he would cast his vote.

Bablu, 24, is a person with visual disability, and there were no provisions for Braille ballot papers or a Braille EVM (electronic voting machine) at the local primary school which was doubling up as a centre for the 2019 General Elections.

“I didn’t know what to do. What if the person helping me lied about the symbols?” Bablu, a second-year undergraduate student, asks. Even if the person told the truth, he argues, his democratic right to a secret ballot would also be infringed upon. Feeling slightly nervous, Bablu still pressed the button pointed out to him and verified it after coming out. “Thankfully, the person had not lied to me,” he says.

The Election Commission of India specifies the use of braille ballots and EVMs for PWD-friendly (Persons with Disability) booths. “There are many provisions on paper,” says Shampa Sengupta, director of the Kolkata-based Sruti Disability Rights Centre. “But implementation is poor.”

The general elections are again on hand, but Bablu is now unsure if he should make the journey home to vote in the sixth phase of the General Elections, 2024. Bablu is registered as a voter in Purulia which goes to the polls on May 25.

PHOTO • Prolay Mondal

Bablu Kaibarta is unsure if he will go home to vote on May 25. The last time he voted, the polling booth did not have a Braille EVM or Braille ballot paper. But accessibility is not his only concern; he is worried about finances too

The lack of facilities for persons with disabilities such as him is not the only reason behind his uncertainty. Purulia is a six to seven hour train journey from Kolkata where he now stays in his university hostel.

“I have to think about the money. I still have to pay for my tickets and the bus fare to the station,” Bablu says. Of the 26.8 million persons with general disabilities in India, over 18 million are from rural areas and 19 percent of the disabilities are vision-related (Census 2011). Implementation, when it has taken place, is largely restricted to urban areas, says Shampa and adds, “this kind of awareness is only possible if the Election Commission takes initiative and one of the mediums should be the radio.”

“I am confused about whom to vote for,” says Bablu, when this reporter spoke to him at the Centre for Persons with Disabilities at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

“I might vote for one person thinking their party or their leaders are doing good work. After the elections, they might switch to the other side,” Bablu complains. Over the past few years, and especially before the state assembly elections in 2021, West Bengal has seen a number of politicians switching sides, often several times.


Bablu wants to be a school or college teacher – a government job that can provide a stable income.

The School Service Commission (SSC) of the state has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. “The Commission used to be a great source of employment [for youth],” says Gopa Dutta, former professor and president of the Higher Secondary Council of the state. “This is because there are schools everywhere – in villages and small towns and the big city.” She continues, “being a school teacher was an aspiration for many.”

PHOTO • Prolay Mondal

‘I am not sure whom to vote for,’ Bablu says. He is concerned that the candidate he votes for may defect after the results are declared, a trend that has emerged in West Bengal in the past five years or so

In the last seven or eight years, the recruitment process has come under the scanner. Bundles of notes have been found stacked in an apartment, ministers have gone to jail, candidates have sat in a peaceful dharna for months on end demanding a fair and transparent process and, most recently, the Calcutta High Court has cancelled the recruitment of over 25,000 individuals. In the first week of May, the order was stayed by the Supreme Court of India who said that a distinction had to be made between the deserving and undeserving candidates.

“I feel scared,” Bablu says, referring to the state of affairs. “I heard there were 104 candidates with visual disabilities. Maybe they were deserving. Is anyone thinking about them?”

Not just in case of the SSC recruitment, Bablu feels that the needs of persons with disabilities have largely been overlooked by the authorities. “There are not enough schools for persons with visual disability in West Bengal,” he says, “we need special schools to form a strong base.” He had to leave his home because of a lack of options and although he wanted to, could not return when the time came to pick a college. “I have never heard any government say that they are thinking about people with disabilities.”

But Bablu remains positive. “I have a few years to go before I have to look for a job,” he says, “I hope things will change.”

Bablu has been the sole earning member of his family since he turned 18. His sister, Bunurani Kaibarta, is a student of Class Nine at the Calcutta Blind School. His mother Sondhya lives in Palma. The family belongs to the Kaibartta community, (listed as Scheduled Caste in the state) whose traditional occupation is fishing. Bablu’s father used to catch and sell fish, but whatever little he had saved up was spent on his treatment after he was diagnosed with cancer.

After his father passed away in 2012, Bablu’s mother worked outside for a few years. “She used to sell vegetables,” Bablu says, “but now, in her 50s, she cannot work too hard.” Sondhya Kaibarta receives the widow pension of Rs. 1,000 every month. “She started getting it last year in August or September,” Bablu says.

PHOTO • Antara Raman

'I have never heard any government say that they are thinking about people with disabilities'

His own source of income is tuitions and composing music for local studios in Purulia. He also receives Rs. 1,000 every month under the Manabik Pension Scheme. Bablu, a trained singer, also plays the flute and the synthesiser. There was always a culture of music in his house, Bablu says. “My thakurda [paternal grandfather], Rabi Kaibarta, was a well-known folk artist in Purulia. He used to play the flute.” Although he passed away long before Bablu was born, his grandson thinks he must have inherited his love for music. “My father used to say the same thing.”

Bablu was still in Purulia when he heard a flute for the first time on the radio at home. “I would listen to the news from Bangladesh, the Khulna station, and they would play an intro before it began. I asked my mother what that music was.” When she said it was a flute, Bablu was confused. He had only seen a bhnepu , the kind of flute that made a loud quacking noise, the kind he used to play with as a child. A few weeks later, his mother bought him a flute from a local fair for 20 rupees. But there was no one to teach him how to play.

In 2011, Bablu moved to the Blind Boys’ Academy in Narendrapur in the outskirts of Kolkata, after a harrowing experience at the Blind School in Purulia made him quit and stay at home for two years. “Something happened one night that scared me. The school had very poor infrastructure and the students were left alone at night. After that incident, I asked my parents to take me home,” Bablu says.

At his new school, Bablu was encouraged to play music. He learnt to play both the flute and the synthesiser and was a part of the school orchestra. Now, he often performs at functions, besides recording interludes for songs sung by artists from Purulia. For each studio recording, he earns Rs. 500. But it is not a stable source of income, Bablu says.

“I cannot pursue music as a career,” he says, “I don’t have enough time to devote to it. I haven’t been able to learn enough because we didn’t have money. Now, it is my responsibility to take care of the family.”
Sarbajaya Bhattacharya

Sarbajaya Bhattacharya is a Senior Assistant Editor at PARI. She is an experienced Bangla translator. Based in Kolkata, she is interested in the history of the city and travel literature.

Other stories by Sarbajaya Bhattacharya
Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

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Illustration : Antara Raman

Antara Raman is an illustrator and website designer with an interest in social processes and mythological imagery. A graduate of the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, she believes that the world of storytelling and illustration are symbiotic.

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Photographs : Prolay Mondal

Prolay Mandal has an M.Phil from the Department of Bengali, Jadavpur University. He currently works at the university's School of Cultural Texts and Records.

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