Sunday, July 27, 2014

A trek through a wonderland: SAR Pass Trek Part-III

The trek was long and so is the blog entry. Out of experience I can say that attention span and patience are two things we are losing very fast. In order to make it easier I have divided the trekking experience into three parts. The first part contains how I came across the idea of trekking, planning the tour, itinerary of the trek, few things about Kasol and my experience in the first three days in the camp. The second part is about the trek, which lasted 7 days and 6 nights, starting from the base camp till the return. The third part is about few things which should be kept in mind during planning for the trek, and some other thoughts/information. The link to all the parts are given below. 

Happy reading.

Apart from adventure and break from monotony, it was a nice opportunity to meet new people from a variety of back grounds. The lifestyle in the plains and up in the hills differ. They live a much harder life than us. People in Grahan has to walk 9 kilometres to have access to proper health care. The doctor in the primary health centre in the village hardly comes. The village school has facility for up to class 8 only. 1/3rd of the year, their village is covered in snow keeping them locked. Even in such adversity they do not complain. They have aligned their life with nature and are surviving. That's a lesson for us.

Few Tips:

  1. Do not ask your mother to help pack you bag. She will put the whole world in it.
  2. The trek is not a picnic. You need little bit of physical fitness. Since it is a group activity, the group should not suffer because of lack of your fitness.
  3. Buy a good pair of trekking shoes and practice walking before the trek.
  4. Take extra camera batteries and memory cards with you. Batteries have a tendency to discharge during cold.
  5. Pack your luggage to minimum. One set of thermals and extra pair of clothes should suffice. The back pack provided by YHAI is adequate for the purpose and you need not invest in one.
  6. Mix with locals. It will give you a new insight.

Contact Information of Mr. Ompraksh (Camp Leader of Biskeri Thatch). He can arrange private treks.

Email ID:
Mobile No: 8894000812 / 9418432012

1. Lennin and Ajosh for some of the photographs.
2. Ridtz for the videos.
3. YHAI for the arrangements.

And above all the people of SP-29 who made it an amazing experience.

A trek through a wonderland: SAR Pass Trek Part-II

The trek was long and so is the blog entry. Out of experience I can say that attention span and patience are two things we are losing very fast. In order to make it easier I have divided the trekking experience into three parts. The first part contains how I came across the idea of trekking, planning the tour, itinerary of the trek, few things about Kasol and my experience in the first three days in the camp. The second part is about the trek, which lasted 7 days and 6 nights, starting from the base camp till the return. The third part is about few things which should be kept in mind during planning for the trek, and some other thoughts/information. The link to all the parts are given below. 


Photo Blog:

Happy reading.


Day-04: Kasol Base Camp to Grahan.
A stream between Kasol and Grahan
Finally, the day had come for which we all had waited so eagerly. The 1st good thing in the morning was that we didn't have to go for the morning exercise. And since we already had packed our back packs, we did not worry about packing. We were ready to leave for the trek at about 8:00 am. The morning did show the day for us. It was slightly overcast and later we found, it rained through out the day till Grahan. Total trek distance for the day was 9.00 kilometres. We started on the left bank of a tributary to the Parvati River. Initially the trek was gradual and we all walked at a leisurely pace. Constant drizzling made the path a little muddy and slippery but since all were high on excitement, no one really cared about the external factors. The path is through thick jungle. One can spot the occasional birds here and there, few wild horses and some domestic animals along with there caretakers. As we climbed higher, the streams were reduced to stream-lets and the snowy peaks could be seen in the distance. 

After about 3 hours of walking we reached the lunch point which was a plain spot among few trees. After the lunch the climb was steeper. We could see the pieces of clouds floating effortlessly and melting with the foliage and with each other. After walking for about and hour or so we could see the slope cultivation and wheat fields on the mountains. It was an indication that the village is not far. At around 2:30 in the afternoon we reached Grahan. It is the last village on the trek and the last mark of civilisation. Its a small village with sloped wooden roofs. Children along the way greet you with a namaste and immediately will ask "bhaiya toffee". Seeing the innocence on their faces you can help but to give each of them toffees. The camp is situated after the village ends. Camp and the village is located on the ridges of two neighbouring mountains, and is separated by a small stream. Our good Samaritan friend, Angad, helped all of us to cross the stream, except one person (guess who?). In the evening the sky had cleared out and the bright evening sun lighted the village excellently. We spent time drying our clothes around a small fire in the shop of a local. This small favour was returned by buying "sadu" (a local dish of maida and some herbs). The could had cleared and we all hoped for bright and sunny days ahead. 
Grahan, as seen from the camp site.

Day-05: Grahan to Padri
The morning greeted us with an azure sky and bright sun. Early morning sunlight made the snow tops sparkle with a golden glow of light, which was a treat to watch. It was one of the easiest day for trek. The climb was mostly easy with two major climbs in between. On the way there was a tea point where the locals sold tea, snacks, cold drinks (a bottle of pepsi was sold at double the price, yes globalisation has it's reach but comes with a price). We avoided pepsi and settled for the local neembu-paani. We reached the lunch point before noon. It was on slope and had dense trees around, making it a nice spot for taking rest. Looking towards north we could spot the SP-27 batch on their ascend to the Nagaru base camp. The lunch point is also one of the few places on the trek you can catch the mobile network (only airtel) if your stars are bright, and you have to put your mobile at a particular elevation and direction to catch the signal. Whenever it catches the signal, take your ear near the phone or else you will lose the signal. The camp leader from the Padri camp daily walked up to this point (2-3 kilometres) to have a chat with his family. At lunch break, I had this anecdote in the middle of a conversation, which I can not help but sharing.

Ajosh: Hey man (in his typical mallu style), are you married?
Me: No. And you?
Ajosh: Yes man (with a sigh).... for about seven years....(after a pause of about 5 seconds) Don't worry about the trek. After you get married, you will find this trek easier.

We both had a hearty laugh.

On  the way to Padri
After lunch, we rested for about two hours and some people (e.g. Neel) managed a siesta in between. The trek after lunch was a leisurely one and we reached Padri around 3.00 pm. is a large patch of grass land with a small pool of water nearby. Padra, in the local language (which is Kulvi) means grassland for grazing domestic animals. Padri, derived its name from Padra. The camp was located at the foot of a hill. From lying inside the tent you can see the majestic view of the Pin-Parvati valley, the snowy peaks and ridges. From this place one can do other smaller treks, which could be completed with in a day. The Northern Railway group which were with us for the last two days, took a different route from this place.
Camp at Padri

Day-06: Padri to Minh-Thatch
On difficulty rating, this would come as the third toughest day of the trek. The other two being the next two days in ascending order of difficulty. This day we had to cover a vertical height of about 2000 fts. The climb was hard. We had cross about two to three mountains and the small streams in between. By lunch we had covered most of the distance. The lunch point was again located near the foot of a hill with green grass around and the field was bisected by a small stream of melted snow. Far to the west the whole of the himalayan range could be seen. The final hurdle after lunch was a stiff cliff which had to be covered in a zig-zag manner. The welcome banner at the top was a landmark we were all aiming.  
Lunch Point before Minh-Thatch
Sadly when reached at the top, we had to descend and walk around 1 more kilometre to reach the base camp at Minh-Thatch. Thatch in Kulvi means a place where one can sit and have an eye around the grazing cattle and sheep. True to the definition, it was a small plain area with slopes around which was abundant with green grass. Shepherds from Grahan use this place as a stay for grazing their cattle and sheep. The camp leader (Mr. Saurav) at this camp was from Kolkata and had a vast experience of trekking in the himalayan range. On enquring about the facilities for nature's call, he bluntly replied "you are in a jungle...stay like a tiger". He even showed us the Rohtang Pass top, Lahaul Spiti valley top and Manali top from the camp. The location of the camp is at such a place, from where you can see 4 camps viz Grahan, Padri, Nagaru and Minh-Thatch itself. The stay at the camp was a good one except for the fact that the rats inside the camp made it a difficult night.

Local Ladies
To keep the memory alive, let me share another funny incident..this time from Angad.We were standing near the tents after breakfast in the morning when Angad, addressed Yamini as Jinali and wished her good morning. Yamini, on the other hand, assumed it to be an innocent mistake, replied and wished us good morning. After Yamini had left, I told Angad, about the mistake he had committed. On this Angad says promptly with his mischevious smile...."क्या यार कैसे कैसे लोग हैं ....अपना ही नाम भूल जाते हैं "...which sent all of us in a fit of laughter.

(No offence intended to Yamini, Jinali, and Angad)

Day-07: Minh-Thatch to Nagaru
Imagine a cliff having a slope of about 70 degrees. If Minh-Thatch is at the bottom of the cliff, Nagaru is at the top. The task for this day was to cover the cliff, safely. Few days prior to us, an old lady had fallen from this cliff. Luckily she survived the fall (only a fractured hand) and bravely she completed the trek also. From this place onwards we were leaving the vegetation behind and entering a cold desert. The trees gave way for wild grasses, barren and rocky patches of land. Rest of the place was covered with snow. From now onwards we trekked in a single line with girls leading. The ascent was slow but was good since it gave us ample time to relax and take breaks. In between the cliff a makeshift arrangement was made for the lunch point. You can have an idea of how high we had reached after you see the eagles flying below your height. We reached Nagaru before time. 

Nagaru, in kulvi, means where the land ends and snow starts. The camp at Nagaru is the most dangerous one. Its located at the edge of the hill. The cliff is towards the south and west side. East and North side was covered with snow. On one side there was a chance of falling from the edge, while on the other side one could slip on the ice. The biggest problem one face in Nagaru, is attending nature's call. Boys have to go down the slope and girls above the slope. A slip and fall during the activity will send you thousands feet below, straight into the lap of nature. The locals staying in the camp worship a piece of rock (nagaru baba) and thinks he controls the weather at the top of the hills.
Tent mates at Nagaru

Day-08: Nagaru to Biskeri-Thatch via Sarpass
We had to start the day early, so that we could cross sarpass before the snow starts to melt. By 4:00 am we had started walking. Like yesterday, this time also the girls led from the front. After about 2-3 hours of walking we had reached the sarpass top. All you can see here is a white sheet of snow cover everywhere and surrounded by snow peaks. Here you need sunglasses to protect you against the glare from the snow. At the top, we had a break for snacks and photography session. The rigours of the last 5 days paid off since the views were amazing. After the sarpass top we still had to cover a lot of distance. We had to walk along the slope of the mountain. Few times we slide down the snow along the slope. The walk up to the second slide was a tough one and never ending. We could see the ridge, which we had to climb, but the it seemed farther and farther away as we walked and got tired. Last part of this walk involved climbing a ridge with the help of a piece of rope. The more difficult as well as dangerous part is the walk on the edge of a ridge without any support. A fall on either side would ensure a visit to the hospital. The next slide was really a long one. All you have to do is sit on the snow and the guide will push you. After that all you can do is pray, rest of the things are governed by laws of Physics and your luck. I found myself in the unluckier side, collided with a friend and the sprained my elbow. At the end of the slide was our lunch point. The guide, who had experience in sliding, covered the whole slope in one or two slides. But for us we had to attempt sliding multiple times and then walk the rest of the distance on the snow. The lunch point was on the other side of sarpass. We all had gathered snow in our accessories and at this point it started to melt here making it an uncomfortable situation. There was one more slide after the lunch point, which landed us very close to the camp at Biskeri-Thatch. Guide told that, if there were a little more snow, we could directly have slide into the camp site. The view from the Biskeri-Thatch was an awesome one with the mountains, the river valley and some villages could be seen.

A White Desert

Camp Site at Biskeri-Thatch

The camp leader (Mr. Omprakash) at this site was a local. He was the same person who had guided us in the slide. He had a vast knowledge about all the peaks around and carries out private treks also to Kheer Ganga, Pin Parvati valleys. An intersting fact he told us about the Malana village. In the dialect spoken in Malana village (the Malana Hydopower project is here) is very different from the rest of the area. As per legends the village was inhabited by "asuras". When the local "rishis" came near the village they had a fight. The asuras losing the battle agreed for truce. As a part of the deal, asuras agreed to leave the village but wanted that their dialect stays. Hence the dialect spoken these days is different from other ones.

Day-09: Biskeri-Thatch to Bhandak-Thatch
Bhandak thatch is just the other side of a hill. The walk to Bhandak thatch was an easy one except the last climb before the camp site. At one point of time training in rappelling comes handy as one has to climb down a small cliff using ropes. We had our lunch near by a stream and witnessed a professional rivalry between two shops for selling snacks. Since majority of people went to the other shop, an old woman was quite frustrated with us. To soothe her nerves and our hunger, we decided to have some omelette and cold drinks at her shop. The trek was mostly through fields of grass and discreet the one you see in the hindi movies.
Camp Site - Bhandak Thatch

The camp site at Bhandak-Thatch is on a beautiful green slope and the valley in the front,  at the back is the mountain with snow. You can hear the sound of the stream flowing below interspersed with the chirping of birds. 

Day-10: Bhandak-Thatch to Barshani to Kasol
On the way to Barshani

The trek from Bhandak-Thatch to Barshani was more of a leisurely walk down hill rather than a trek. On the way we met people of the near by villages going to the forest to earn a living. We covered the distance with in 3 hours. Barshani is the dead end for the road from Bhuntar. Since we were leaving for Delhi the same evening, we all returned. However Ajosh and Lennin halted at Manikaran to visit the Gurdwara. After a heavy meal in Kasol we reached base camp, collected the certificates and proceeded for Bhuntar to catch the Delhi bus.



A trek through a wonderland: SAR Pass Trek Part-I

The trek was long and so is the blog entry. Out of experience, I can say that attention span and patience are two things we are losing very fast. In order to make it easier I have divided the trekking experience into three parts. The first part contains how I came across the idea of trekking, planning the tour, itinerary of the trek, few things about Kasol and my experience in the first three days in the camp. The second part is about the trek, which lasted 7 days and 6 nights, starting from the base camp till the return. The third part is about few things which should be kept in mind during planning for the trek, and some other thoughts/information. The link to all the parts are given below. 


Photo Blog:

Happy reading.

Some of us had planned the trek for celebration of their graduations, some had planned it for adventure, for some it was part of their work and for rest of us, at least two of us, it was just a gateway to break away from the mundane activities accompanying a 8-5 job. Personally, months prior to the trek, I was bored, frustrated and fed up with life. A phase which had occurred previously many times but not as intense as this one. When someone suggested a break, trekking in the Himalayas was the first thing that crossed my mind. Ladakh trip and trekking were few things that I had already discussed with Om and Monty but the plans made four years ago never materialised. As soon as I decided to go with in few days I booked the seat in YHAI's website and all other travel arrangements were done. March and April were spent researching about the trek and discussing with person who had already completed the trek. Most of the things I needed were shopped online.

Getting there:
Kasol is a small town situated near Kullu in Himachal Pradesh. On the Chandigarh-Manali highway, one has to take a right turn at Bhuntar, just before Kullu, and have to travel around 30 kilometres, to reach Kasol. Manikaran, which is a holy place for Sikhs, is about 5 kms from Kasol.

I had reached New Delhi via train and did the onward journey to Bhuntar by state government operated Volvo bus. The bus left Delhi (ISBT Kashmere Gate) at around 8:30 PM in the evening and reached Bhuntar by 9:00 AM next morning. From there on I had to take a local bus upto Kasol. The road to Kasol from Bhuntar is a scenic one, the Parvati river flow along the left bank and one can see the snow capped mountain towering on both sides of the roads. After a ride of about 3 hours (We had a traffic jam since road repairing job was going on) I reached the YHAI base camp at around noon. Rest of the day was spent doing some paper work and meeting fellow travellers in the group. I was allotted Tent No-2 and their I met Sunil (a doctor) and Laxmikant (a Clinical Researcher) from Mumbai. Later on two other tent mates (Ajosh and Lennin, both professional photographers from Kerala) joined us. Late in the evening, Angad (from Ludhiana) shifted from Tent-1 to Tent-2. A group of college students from Mumbai formed the majority of our group and they were allotted Tent-1. In the evening I explored the Kasol market with Sunil and Laxmi and did some shopping.

Kasol is a very small town, known (and infamous) for the easy availability of ganja, charas and other narcotics. Many foreigners stays here, spending months. Most of the tourists are from Israel which was evident from the rampant use of Hebrew by the display boards of shops. Foreigners can be seen lazing around. Indian tourists made very few of the population. Indians, mostly sikhs, stop here on their way to-from Manikaran.

Itinerary for the Trek:

The trek is of 7 days while 3 days are for joining  and acclimatization etc. So a total of 10 days are required for the trek. SP-29 followed the following schedule.

Day-01 (29-05-2014): Reporting at Kasol Base Camp
Day-02 (30-05-2014): Acclimatisation Trek and Briefing about the trek
Day-03 (31-05-2014): Rock Climbing and Rapelling
Day-04 (01-06-2014): Trek from Kasol Base Camp to Grahan
Day-05 (02-06-2014): Trek from Grahan to Padri.
Day-06 (03-06-2014): Trek from Padri to Minh-Thatch
Day-07 (04-06-2014): Trek from Minh-Thatch to Nagaru
Day-08 (05-06-2014): Trek from Nagaru to Biskeri-Thatch
Day-09 (06-06-2014): Trek from Biskeri-Thatch to Bhandak-Thatch
Day-10 (07-06-2014): Trek from Bhandak-Thatch to Barsani. Barsani to Kasol via Bus.
Day-11 (08-06-2014): Departure from Base Camp after breakfast.

Staying in base camp on 10th day evening is optional. If your itinerary does not permit you to stay, you can leave the base camp on 10th day evening itself.

The attached charts gives an idea about the altitude and distance to be covered during the duration of the trek.

Day-2 &3 (Acclimatisation and other activities):
The first two days in the camps are spent making an effort to acclimatise your body to the rigours of the upcoming trek. On both the days you have to jog for about 15 minutes and do some stretching and other exercises under the guidance of the local trainers. On 2nd day a small trek to a near by hill is conducted, with two blankets and a water bottle in your back pack, as a mock exercise. On 3rd day, rock climbing and rappelling is practised in near a rock near the camp.

Camp Site (Pic by Ajosh)
For me Day-2 started as early as 4:30 AM. The starts were just fading out from the eastern sky and a faint glow of light was just beginning to appear behind the mountains in the east. By 06:00 AM almost all the members (except those who had not joined) of our group had lined up for the morning exercise. The displeasure and discomfort of waking up so early was clearly painted on most of the faces. After jogging for about a kilometre we reached a plain spot just at the end of town. After a brief warm up, the exercises began and soon our physical fitness (or lack of it) was evident from the facial expressions. The exercises were interrupted by a brief spell of rain which allowed us to catch up our breath. After returning from the exercise and having breakfast, we gave a send off to the SP-27 batch. By 8:30 am we started our acclimatisation trek to a hill near by. Initially it was a steep climb of about 200-300 vertical distance, then the climb was gradual. The local camp boy Jagdish was our guide along with 3 dogs from the camp.

SP-29 on Day-2
After trekking for about an hour, we reached the rest point. As soon as we reached, it started to drizzle mildly and we had to use the rain sheets. We had our introduction session where all of us introduced ourselves. As it happened, SP-29 was well represented by people from all parts of India. Angad, Neel+Mumbai public, Ajosh/Lenin and myself representing the north, west, south and east India respectively. As a part of our task, we had to choose the group leader, environment leader and a host for the evening programme. Pratik, Yamini and Isha were chosen for the above positions, unanimously. Another thing we had to do was to create a slogan for our group. Among many lame options, we had chosen this one..."Oh my darling give me a kiss....हम हैं SP-उनतीस (SP-29)". Since it started to rain heavily, we decided against climbing any further and returned to the base camp. After returning from the trek we had lunch, which consisted of simple Indian vegetarian food, then we had the briefing sessions which mainly gave us a vague idea about what to expect and not expect from the trek. Rest of the afternoon was spent buying few accessories we found would be necessary during trekking in rain and booking our return ticket to Delhi.

On a after thought, Angad, in this pose, could have been
used as a perfect scare-crow.
In the evening we practised for hosting the evening. Actually, as per the camp rules, every group has to host the evening on their second day at the camp. After dinner, the camp fire is lighted (which is an electrical arrangement, no burning of fire wood), and the programme is carried out.
Our group did some songs, dance by Pratik and Shamita. (
The Mumbai boys did a spoof on the "baby doll" song ( Rest of the guys did a poker faced dance on the song "ओ जाने जान, ढूंढ़ता हूँ कहां..."( The baby doll song was a hit among the audience.

On the third day, after the compulsory physical exercise session and the send off to SP-28, we went for rock climbing. The highlight of the session was Angad and his ingenuous antics to pretend physical activity without spending too much of energy. In this session, we had to climb on a almost vertical surface for about 20-25 fts just using our hands. Trained guides we there to help us but the climb was much difficult than I had anticipated. Few of the guys did it effortlessly but for rest for us it was a task. Luckily, we did not encounter any such climb during the trek. At the end, we entertained ourselves by the useless tantrum of a drunk local. He showed how he could climb the cliff without any help. I thought, more than his skill, extra alcohol in his cardiovascular system helped him achieve the fit. A heavy drizzle in the evening prevented us from doing the rappelling session. We spent that time in the tent packing our bags and taking rest. We had to keep our extra luggage in the base camp. Hence, we had to put them in a bag and submit it to the authorities. Plan well or else you will spend many hours packing and unpacking/repacking, just like I did.

These two days may seem boring for some, since no actual trekking is done, but I feel it was important. It gives you time to gel with your other group mates, tent mates and more importantly make your body a little fitter. And these two days will pass just like that in anticipation of the adventure to follow in the next seven days.

For reading more about the actual trek click on the following link.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Let’s Make Every Day an Environment Day

Like previous years, this year too, we are celebrating World Environment Day, on 5th June. The theme chosen by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is “Raise Your Voice, Not the sea level” with a focus on the dangers small islands are facing due to climatic changes occurring in our environment. As a part of the celebration of the World Environment Day, many programmes have been lined up across the globe, both at local level as well as by different states and countries. Barbados, the Caribbean island more famous for its fast bowlers, has been chosen as the host country for this year’s celebration.
Let’s pause a little, and go back to events exactly a year ago. Like this year, we had celebrated last year also. What was the theme for last year’s World Environment Day? Which country was the host country? Many of us, including you and me do not remember that. Do we? We must have celebrated it, like every year, on 5th June 2013 and 6th June onwards we got busy in our own lives. Knowing last year’s theme or host country’s name doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the aim of celebrating the world environment day has been achieved or not.
The point here is that, we do not, and should not; need a special day to care for the environment around us. Celebration of World Environment Day is a platform for creating awareness among the community and younger generations. It is the responsibility of every individual to spread the word on environment protection among the less aware section of the community. Another point, which is especially important for us Indians, is that we do not have a sense of ownership for things that do not belong to us. As we do not care for everything that the government (or for that matter our corporation) provides us free of charge, we also do not care for the environment and think that it’s somebody else responsibility. We need to change the mentality and show others that a small effort from each individual shall make a huge impact on the environment. Here are few things that we can do at individual levels.
Ø  Inculcate environment friendly habits in your family and educate the family members, especially children, on their benefits.
Ø  Plant and care for trees, as many as you can.
Ø  Do not waste water, electricity etc. Even if it doesn’t cost us a rupee, somewhere a fuel is burnt to make it available to us.
Ø  Make optimum us of sunlight and wind, two energy source abundant in Paradip, where ever you can. For example to dry clothes instead of using the drier.
Ø  Spread awareness among villagers on environment friendly use of resources.
Like above, there are a number of other environment friendly habits that we can imbibe in our daily lives. Our minuscule efforts may not have a visible and imminent impact, but together all our small actions will definitely have a larger positive effect on the environment our future generations will inherit from us. We owe it to them. Instead of being a silent observer of the climate change lets be a crusader against environment pollution. Let’s care for our mother earth as we care for our families. Let’s make every day a celebration of world environment day. After all, as mentioned in Mahaponishada, all the world is a single family:

वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम्


I had written this on the request of a friend, who was looking for articles to fill in the in house magazine to be published on the occasion of World Environment Day 2014. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Agony & Ecstasy of being a polling officer.

Luck, fate or chance, whatever you call it, gave me (and many of my colleagues) an opportunity of being a presiding officer in the on-going general elections. Personally, it was an enriching experience, except a few hiccups here and there. I had glimpse of the  process and the efforts that go into making election a successful exercise in the world’s largest democracy. Here is an account of my experience of being in charge of a polling booth in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district.

2nd phase of the general election in Odisha was scheduled to be held on 17th April 2014, but we were supposed to report to the district administration on 15th April to meet other team members, collect the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and other related materials and then to proceed to our designated polling booths. Before going for the election duty, all of us were given training on our duties, responsibilities and were warned about the consequences of a failure. The training was held in two phases on 5th and 11th of April. Few colleagues who had already carried out similar duties in Odisha as well as other states, had infused an unknown fear about the forthcoming adversities. Naturally, those of us who haven't seen a village in a lifetime, had more trepidation and were well prepared with packed foods and other necessities they deemed fit to be their saviour in time of distress. I only considered a plastic mat, torch and a packet of mosquito coil as a minimum requirement in addition to the other things of daily needs. 

Day-1 (15th April 2014):
A makeshift place of worship near a pond close to the booth

(After The Gods, probably Election is the only thing that 
penetrate every Indian Village)

On the first day, we were required to report at 08:00 AM at the district headquarters. About 8 buses were arranged from the township to the destination which is about an hour and half drive (we Indian have a tendency to measure distance by the time required for travel). On arrival, the election booths allotted to our respective groups were displayed. I had wished to be allotted in a rural area, with ponds, river and temples, to satiate my urge to be as close to a natural surrounding as possible, but as luck would have it, was allotted a village (Kantaballvpur) very near to the district head quarters. The next task was to find out other group members. Each polling booth is allotted eight members in total, 1 presiding officer + 5 polling officers + one Security personnel and a driver. I had the telephone number of the 1st polling officer and had met him during training so it was not difficult to find him. 2nd and 3rd polling officers had given the mobile numbers but due to some network issues it was difficult to contact them. Gradually the reporting counters started to fill in and the crowd swelled. I and the 1st polling officer ( a 58 year old school headmaster) had a tough time finding other people. By 11:00 AM, when I checked the attendance sheet with the lady in the counter, the 3rd and 4th polling had joined. It was almost 2-3 hours after joining and many of us had not found the complete team. What added to the disappointment was that team members had joined are present inside the tented area were not able to locate each other. Ingeniously some of us started advertising our booth numbers on bamboo poles and some had started hawking with a piece of paper having the booth numbers. This paid handsomely when my 3rd and 4th polling officer located me. The 3rd polling officer was a 35 year old school teacher and the 4th one was a 60 year old employee of Odisha Govt. It was already noon and we still had not found the 2nd and 5th polling officer. We decided to disperse for lunch at 12:30 pm and assemble at the designated location with in half an hour. After lunch, the attendance sheet indicated that the 2nd and 5th polling officer had also joined. 2nd polling officer (a 52 year old school teacher) was waiting for us near the material receiving counter, knowing that we had not received the material and will surely come to receive it. By 1:30 pm we received the material and by 2:00 pm we were ready to leave for the polling station. In the meantime the security personnel from the Odisha police had also joined us. We were left with two tasks now, to find the vehicle and the 5th polling officer allotted to us. We were not in a hurry since our booth was around 1 km from the place we were in, and hence decided to wait for the 5th person and then proceed ahead. 
Reminiscence of Childhood
(The elder one was trying to teach the other two
the tricks of the trade)

An hour passed and there was no sign of him. I arranged to announce his name in the public announcement giving the details of the location we were waiting for him. Meanwhile the two school teachers also scoured the arena for possible traces of him. The police guy was sent to locate the vehicle allotted to us. He also returned empty handed. It was 5:00 pm by now and after three hours of frantic searching in scorching heat, we had not located the a member and a vehicle. In between I had contacted the authorities to allow me a different officer from polling officer. My request was rejected since the 5th one has joined and I should find him and take him along. The sector officer allotted to me was also not reachable in mobile. Gradually my desperation was turning into anger and I decided to move out leaving the 5th polling officer behind. I and the security guy went in search for the vehicle in different directions. This time I was lucky to locate it. When the material was being loaded in the back compartment, we discovered a person sleeping (an example of, as one my friends often quotes a Hindi proverb, of "घोडे बेच के सोना "). Initially, we thought him to be the helper of the vehicle and thought he must have suffered a heat stroke unknown to the driver. He was woken up from the inertia and when we enquired about his wellbeing he told us that he is the 5th polling officer. My emotion at that point of time was a mixture of extreme anger and happiness. He was drunk beyond alertness and it was futile to reprimand him.

By 6:00 pm we had reached the polling booth. The school head mistress came and provided us the things we needed. Around late evening the police and the sector officer came and created a confusion that we were stationed in the wrong booth. The Booth Level Officer (BLO) was called and after matching the electoral roll of the area with that with the copy of the BLO, all confusion was brought to rest. We rested in the evening and the planned a little for next day’s activities in the school.

Day-2 (16th April 2014):
Time for Lunch & Dinner ?
(The owner sitting to the extreme left was happy seeing his
photo on a camera and requested a copy of the photo)

Poll was scheduled the next day. So we spent the day getting to know the EVMs and getting acquainted with our respective duties during polling. Layout of polling booths and movement of people during polling was planned and accordingly the furnitures were rearranged. Along with this I finished some of the necessary paper work which was required after polling. We had asked the owner of a small hotel in the village to arrange food for us for all three days. He had prepared a nice lunch, of rice, dal and coconut chutney. In the afternoon mock polling exercise were conducted which made us confident. The local representatives of the Political parties came in the evening to learn about our well being. During the evening time I explored the village and nearby areas. Though mixing with local people is not encouraged during polling duty, I took an exception and played a little cricket with a group of boys. Other part of the evening was basically getting to know more about ourselves as a team. All these activities were done, with little involvement of the 5th polling officer. He spent most of his time sleeping on the floor, oblivious of the heat. Occasionally he would wakeup to drink a mixture of water and a powder (I didn't care to ask him). I had an early night so that I can start the day early tomorrow.

Day-3 (17th April 2014)
Sitting (L-R): Presiding Officer, 4th Polling and 1st Polling Officer
Standing (L-R): Security Guard, 3rd Polling and 2nd Polling Officer

(the 5th Polling officer was sleeping somewhere)
We started the day early. By 5:00 AM we all were ready, surprisingly including the 5th polling officer. Agents arrived around 6:15 am and mock polling (a mandatory exercise in presence of representatives of the political parties to check the correct functionalities of an electronic voting machine) was started. By 7:30 am we concluded the mock polling and sealing of the voting machines and started the actual election. People had already gathered outside for voting. Gradually it gathered pace and in the intervening hour between 09:45 am and 11:00 am it had attained its peaked. There was a little low turnout during 1:00-2:00 pm (due to scorching sun) but otherwise the voting process maintained its momentum and didn't allow us to have either our breakfast or lunch. By 3 pm about 60% of the electoral roll had already voted. In between the local counsellor raised an issue that some of the people are not allowed to vote. Since their names were not in the marked copy of the electoral roll I had refused them the permission to vote. It was later found out the marked copy had few missing pages and then the District Collector arranged an annexure and sent it to me. Peace then prevailed between me the counsellor and we both agreed that we were right in our own positions and responsibilities. 

During voting some people, especially elders, had a trouble using the EVMs. Throughout their lives they had voted using a paper slip and a stamp. In times of modern technology they had a little difficulty in catching up. This created few funny situations during voting. 

  1. In EVM a voter is required to vote by pressing a button. But many of the voters examined the balloting unit of any possible holes in the machine, so that they can insert their voting slips to vote. One woman even tried to insert her voter's slip inside the button and unknowingly voted correctly. 
  2. An old man, after voting for Lok Sabha, refused to vote for Vidhan Sabha saying he had already given his vote to a different candidate and it is not good to take it back from him. Later on a polling agent convinced him and then he agreed to vote for Vidhan Sabha.
  3. My 5th polling officer allowed many people to go without voting. When confronted he countered "If they are not interested in voting then, who am I to force them?". I had to call them back for voting.

By evening voting was closed and the booth had registered about 86% polling. Other formalities were completed and we returned to the material deposit centre by 8:00 pm and submitted and got relieved of our election duty by 11:30 pm. I distributed the duty relieving slips to all except the 5th polling officer. He had disappeared as surreptitiously as he had appeared.

In between I had not realised that I was on water for the more than 24 hours, somehow my brain had adjusted to the emptiness of my stomach. A bus was arranged for us to return to Paradip but was parked away from the material dispersal centre. I had to walk down about 2 kms. Along the way two friends joined me who were also looking for the bus. Unknowingly we had crossed the parking place of bus and had moved towards the edge of the town. We decided to wait there for the bus. Spotting an open eatery nearby, our hunger was inflamed, and two of decided to have a bite. After few minutes, our third friend, who was waiting for us on the road, informed us about the arrival of the bus. We left the hotel half-filled and when we arrived at the bus stop discovered that the bus had left. Next bus was scheduled to leave at least two hours later. We decided against waiting and hired an auto rickshaw for the 52 km drive to Paradip, for a thousand rupees (we were too tired to bargain). The drive back to Paradip in a moon-lit empty highway, enjoying the cool breeze was an apt end to an otherwise hectic last 66 hours.

Few words on the electoral process:
Sun setting on the eve of Polling Day
Conducting the general elections in India is a huge task, especially considering the diverse populace, degree of awareness and topography in a country like India. India has over 800 million registered voters and distributing voter’s slip to each and every one is itself a task of gigantic proportion. As per the guidelines of Election Commission (EC) no voter should travel more than 2.0 Kms to reach a polling booth and a single polling booth should not handle more than 1600 voters. This guideline further calls for setting up a polling booth in almost every village and in some cases more than one per village. Safe transport of polling officials and EVMs from district headquarters to these villages and ensuring their security for three days is an uphill task. Further, time to time EC has changed and/or modified rules so that people irrespective of cast, creed, religion, ability, disability, gender have a right to express their opinion. Onus lies on the administration and police to accommodate them in a fair manner Looking at arrangement and management in a single district, I was in awe of the whole system.

Some people may raise the doubt about the efficacy for the whole process, since still most people are illiterate and unaware voters. Few rupees and a bottle of alcohol on the eve of polls change the judgement of voters. It is genuine to doubt the fruitfulness of the whole process when the loyalty to ideologies of leaders, if any, are prone to fickleness and can be swayed by lure of power. In our country, the votes are bought and political leaders are still reaping the benefits of inheriting a surname from their illustrious fore fathers. The very success of these leaders for last decades stands on the foundation of illiteracy, poverty and unawareness. They thrive in dividing the masses on the basis of upper and lower castes, Hindu and Muslims. And these are the very same things they promise to eradicate once they come to power. (Conflict of interest?). When you read excerpts from political rallies, they talk more about the failure of their opponent and less about their own plans.

In spite of the imperfections in the process, of the ineligibility of the leaders and the led, Election Commission has been honouring the Indian Constitution by giving an equal right to vote to all eligible citizens of a country as vibrant and as diverse as India. Since the October of 1951, when few Ladakhi Buddhist monks became first Indians to vote till today, the whole bureaucracy, irrespective of how badly we criticise it, has been successfully delivering during this one single exercise. I hope someday, this same zeal and enthusiasm of the nation, leaders and system percolates to other areas requiring urgent attention.

Personally, I am happy to contribute a little in the second best way possible for me, the best being voting myself, which I missed.