Inmates of Institute of Mental Health Chennai vote, set example for rest of India

Muthu, the first voter in the country to exercise his franchise from a mental health centre

Chennai: At around 9 am today, Muthu, a resident of the Institute of Mental Health at Kilpauk, walked into the polling booth set up at the premises to cast his vote and walked out with a smile. It was for the first time in Indian history, that an inmate of a mental health hospital had cast his vote.

On this historic day, around 170 mentally affected people of the IMH exercised their franchise for the Lok Sabha elections from the Chennai Central constituency today. The move can only be described as a giant leap towards inclusivity in Indian electoral system.
Speaking to News Today, the Director-in-charge of the institute, Dr Poorna Chandrika said, “This exercise sets an example that voting is a right and a democratic duty for one and all without any exclusion. A lot of doubts were raised whether mentally affected should be given voting rights. Why not? If they have decision-making skills, they have the right to vote.”

Dr Chandrika explained that the patients went through a careful screening process to assess their mental health and out of 900 patients only around 180 were selected for voting. It was a mixed batch consisting of first-time voters and those who had done it before.

 Director Incharge of Institute of Mental Health-Kilpauk, Dr Poorna Chandrika and Additional District Election Officer at the auxiliary special polling booth set up at the hospital.

All doubts about the selection process were put to rest when Benedict, an inmate of the institution, told NT the names of the popular candidates in Central Chennai, but shrewdly refused to disclose who was his choice amongst them. Benedict said, “I have already voted in the 2004 and 2009 elections. It’s a great gift from God that the institute has given me the right to vote again as a normal citizen in the Chennai Central constituency and elect my desired choice of government at the Centre.”

The process to grant voting rights to mentally disabled was initiated by the Disability Rights Alliance along with the IMH Kilpauk, Election Commission of India and the Chennai Corporation. The Corporation also set up training camps twice in the institute to teach them how to vote and Dr Chandrika said that some of the questions raised by the inmates proved that they were aware of the election process.

Inmates of Indian Institute of Mental Health at Kilpauk queue up to vote.

“During a mock polling session to explain the workings of EVMs and VVPATs, the inmates raised questions as to why the symbols and names of the candidates were not displayed in the sample machines. This shows their pre-awareness of the election process,” she explained.

Dr Chandrika said that nursing staff, students and social workers educated the inmates as to the people contesting in the elections and their promises and past records. “They also had access to TVs and newspapers and are all as informed as we are about the elections,” she said.

Staff nurse at IMH arrange the voter id cards of the patients.

Additional Election Officer, Lalitha, who facilitated the polling from ground zero, said, “For any citizen, a six-month residency in a constituency, gives him or her the right to vote. The people at IMH are no different. According to law, only people declared of having un-sound mind by the court are not allowed to vote. The residents chosen to vote at IMH have displayed clear decision-making skills and have sound mind.”

“But, in no way was their decision as to which candidate or party to vote was influenced,” she added.

Photos : V M Srinivasan

A Harsha Vardhan