Being ‘homeless’ and getting inked

A small group of voluntary organisations have taken up the challenging job of getting voter ID cards for those in shelter homes 

Updated - April 14, 2024 09:41 pm IST

Published - April 14, 2024 09:22 pm IST

Representational picture

Representational picture

In the 2021 Assembly elections, 49 residents of Aadharavu Trust, a registered non-profit working with individuals with mental illness, got to exercise their political franchise.

A big achievement for members of the Trust as a majority of the residents are homeless and have no proper identity proof to make them eligible to apply for a voter’s identification card.

D. Kotteswara Rao, founder and managing trustee of the Trust, says in such cases the local village officer has the power to tender a letter saying that such a person has been under the care of a home/shelter and must be allowed to apply for a voter’s ID card.

But the process is far from easy.

Obtaining the necessary permission, contacting the personnel entrusted with the issue of voter card, facilitating the paperwork, and coordinating with the stakeholders makes the process challenging. NGOs working in this area say lethargy among local officials is another reason why only a small population of the homeless and mentally ill get their voter’s ID card number.

Despite running behind officials for the last six months, Rao says he has not been successful in having this process initiated for the upcoming Lok Sabha Elections.

“The Collector directed our representation to the district differently abled officer who in turn directed us to the tahsildar in-charge of elections,” says Kotteswara Rao, who is assistant director, Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) in Chennai.

He says 12 residents of the home run by the Trust might be able to vote in this election with the voter’s card they already possess.

Many other private homes taking care of the destitute and mentally ill have similar stories to share.

Little Drops Public Charitable Trust, which has close to 1000 residents across its shelters in the city and outside, has been working towards getting Aadhar cards for its residents for more than six months.

“They want us to find the residents’ roots. Our problem is that residents are referred to us through a police memo, so there is no way to find out their roots,” says Edgar Jones Paul, co-founder, Little Drops.

Discrimination at booth

Mohammed Rafi, founder, Anbagam, a home for the mentally ill, has another issue. He says public hurl insults when residents of the home go out to vote. This election, there are at least 80 people who are eligible to vote.

“I have made a representation to the Election Commission many a time that they make provisions for having a polling booth at shelter homes”

“I have made a representation to the Election Commission many a time that they make provision for having a polling booth at the home,” says Rafi.

After four months of a person’s stay at Anbagam, the Aadhar process is initiated.

“Duplicate Aadhar cards are not issued, and we start the exercise early on for those who have no card and it is time-consuming and taxing,” says Rafi.

Who decides whether a person with mental illness can vote?

The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that persons with mental illness cannot be denied the right and the opportunity to vote. The law says that persons with mental illness can, unless declared to be of “unsound mind” by a competent court, exercise their constitutional right to vote. This holds good for long-stay patients as well.

Decision-making skills

“A diagnosis of mental illness is neither necessary nor sufficient for finding of unsound mind” says a report by a team of mental health professionals associated with NIMHANS Institute and Hospital administration and Department of Psychiatry in Bengaluru. The Institute had facilitated the process for the first time during the 2018 elections.

In 2019, the Institute of Mental Health in Kilpauk got its residents to exercise their right to vote. These residents had to undergo tests to assess their decision-making skills.

Those with very active psychotic symptoms and those under custody were not allowed to vote.

That’s not all. Once the persons who will exercise their vote are identified it is important to orient them about the election process and the candidates who are contesting the elections including giving a demo on how an EVM works.

“One also needs to understand that getting them a voter’s id card will help them open a bank account, make them eligible for a disability pension and other government schemes. It is a bundle of happiness we are trying to send them with, when they leave the home as it will reduce the burden on the family,” adds Kotteswara Rao of SCARF.

Promoting integration

Participation of the mentally-ill in elections promotes integration into the community, says a study titled ‘Voting Rights for Psychiatric Patients: Compromise of the Integrity of Elections, or Empowerment and Integration into the Community?’ brought out by a team of mental health professionals from Israel.

The relationship between schizophrenia and decision-making capacity remains equivocal. In patients with schizophrenia, decision-making abilities might be affected by cognitive factors and/or psychopathologic factors, says the report. While psychotic symptoms fluctuate, cognitive deficits are generally stable over time.

There is presently no clear consensus on what capacities a person actually requires to be able to vote, and many people with major cognitive impairments still have the right to vote in some countries, says the report.

The researchers — Adiel Doron, Tali Stolovy, Aya Secker-Einbinder, Alla Raba and Rena Kurs — found that the only countries that do not disenfranchise persons with a mental health or intellectual disability are Canada, Ireland, Israel, Italy and Sweden.

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