It was a historic moment for the 225-year-old Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in Ayanavaram. For the first time ever in the country, voting was held on the campus of an institution for the mentally ill. A total of 156 of its inmates — 100 men and 56 women — cast their votes at an auxiliary polling booth established on the campus on Thursday.
As the clock struck 9 a.m., patients started to arrive in batches to the polling station — a building dating back to 1941 that at present houses the head overseer’s office — to cast their votes for the Chennai Central Lok Sabha constituency.
With the traditional green and maroon uniforms being phased-out, some of the patients wore bright, new clothes, and women came wearing skirts and blouses in floral prints and pastel colours.
Holding on to their new voter identity cards, most of them found the process easy.
In fact, staff were surprised as a majority of the voters signed instead of providing thumb impressions.
Among them were some of the oldest inmates of the IMH. An inmate of 25 years, Kumaran*, called ‘ thatha ’ (grandfather), was congratulated on casting his vote by P. Poorna Chandrika, IMH’s Director. Some of the long-time residents were first-time voters like Pramila*, another patient of 25 years. An inmate undergoing treatment at a government hospital was also brought over to cast his vote.
‘Like normal citizens’
The first to vote was Senthil*. Voting after 18 years, he said, “I am very happy to have received the opportunity to vote, and that too on an Electronic Voting Machine for the first time.”
Casting his vote after a decade, Peter*, another patient, saw it as a great opportunity for IMH patients, “I am happy that I am one of the persons who got the chance to choose the government,” he said.
Dr. Chandrika said, “The Chennai Corporation and Disability Rights Alliance approached us and the result was a massive exercise, in which we screened about 900 patients on the premises. We asked questions to ascertain their decision-making capacity. We checked for their awareness and understanding of politics, present politicians, and party symbols.”
R. Lalitha, Additional District Election Officer, said, “We enrolled 192 patients in a special drive and set up an auxiliary booth. They are equally entitled to vote. They had more than six months residency.”
On their ability to vote, she said, “We cannot decide that they would not know. This is a basic right. Unsound mind is different; it is a legal status that should be proved in court.” A few of the remaining patients did not get their voter identity cards.
V. Sabitha, Associate Professor, IMH, said, “This is a step towards doing away with the stigma associated with mental illness.”
(*Names have been changed to protect identity.)