Every vote counts and every voter matters: this is the motto of the Election Commission of India (ECI). This may sound like a catchy slogan for us, but for the organization that conducts the world’s largest elections, it is a lived reality.
It not only walks the proverbial extra mile, but a full 70 kilometres to reach a lone voter deep in a forest in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Bharatdas Bapu, 70 is a priest-cum-caretaker of a temple located in the Banej area of the lion infested Gir forest in the Junagarh district of Gujarat.
The forest is the only habitat in India where more than 300 Asiatic lions live. Bapu has been living in the forest all alone with a cook, who has a vote in another district, for over 20 years.
The temple was built decades ago by the old king of the Junagarh principality during British times.
Once it was a widely frequented by devotees, but the forest was declared as sanctuary and a National park in the late 1970s. The authorities soon put restrictions on people visiting the temple.
As most of the priests left the place soon after, Bapu came here two decades ago and assumed charge as a caretaker.
“The temple where Bharatdas lives is deep inside the forest”, says V M Prajapati, the deputy election officer of Una district under which the forest comes.
“We send a presiding officer with two polling officials and one police officer to complete the electoral process in Banej. Since there is no concrete road to reach that remote area we also send an extra vehicle in case of any emergency”, says Prajapati.
He informs that the polling official leaves for Banej early in the morning as it takes more than three hours to reach the place.
“From 2007 we have been conducting elections there and there is no way we can communicate with him over phone”, says Prajapati.
A guest house maintained by the forest department near the temple is converted into a polling station and by 11 in the morning the seventy-year-old priest comes out to vote and then the officials pack up and leave for the Una, the nearest city.
Out of the one million polling stations in India, Banej is the only one where a single voter casts his vote.
In general elections 2019, 900 million voters will decide the fate of the 543 parliamentary constituencies. The seven-phase polling comes to an end of May 19 and the result would be declared on May 23.
Bharatdas Bapu, 70. He is a priest and lives in the temple. There are no ways we can communicate with him over phone.
According to the election commission no voter citizen should travel more than two kilometres to reach the booth and that’s why we take this bumpy ride to reach the temple caretaker in the jungle”, adds electoral official.
Junagarh based local journalist Hanif Khokhar who has been covering Bapu for the last ten years says that the old man gets his food supply and other essential items from devotees who visit the temple during the day time. He also has a vehicle which he himself drives.
“Bharatdas enjoys the attention that he gets during the election”, says Khokhar.
According to him the old man originally belongs to the neighbouring state of Rajasthan but he moves to the Gir forest after he turned ascetic.
“The priest tells me that there used to live around fifty people in the temple two decades ago when he shifted here and there used to be a rush of pilgrims here. But the forest officials did not like the presence of so many humans in lion’s reserve so most of them left and he remained there as a caretaker”, Khokhar tells Ultra News