Braving icy heights: Elections at world’s highest polling station

10:56 AM Jun 01, 2024 | PTI |

Tashigang (HP): Prem Lal arrived early at the sub-divisional magistrate’s office on Thursday, the icy cold and crisp morning air hinting at the challenges ahead.


As one of the 29 booth-level officers deployed from Kaza to polling stations in Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, Lal knew that the next few days would be demanding.

Wearing sunglasses to shield his eyes from the glaring sun, the trained graduate teacher joined others in a semi-circle. The SDM, carrying a bunch of papers clipped together, called out the names of the poll-booth officers and their assignments.

It is Tashigang for Lal and his team of five others. Tashigang is a tiny village perched high in the icy Himalayas at a staggering altitude of 15,256 feet. This village holds the distinction of hosting the highest polling station in the world.

Located near the India-China border, the Spiti valley is part of the Mandi Lok Sabha seat, one of the four parliamentary constituencies in Himachal Pradesh and the second largest in India. Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is up against the Congress’s Vikramaditya Singh from the seat.


The polling station at Tashigang, serving 62 voters from Tashigang and Gete, has been made a model polling booth.

The hour-and-a-half-long journey to Tashigang, located on the other side of a mountain facing the SDM’s office in Kaza, is as formidable as the landscape itself — rugged terrain, narrow winding dirt roads and unpredictable weather.

Yet, for Lal and his team, the assignment carries a sense of purpose. In a place where the harsh environment shapes every aspect of life, facilitating the democratic process is both a “duty and an honour”.

“I have been part of a team that conducted elections at Hikkim (also in the Spiti valley), the second-highest polling station in the country, in the past. So I have some experience,” Lal said, laughing as he walked to board a white Bolero car with an electronic voting machine (EVM) in his hands.

After a brief pause, he added, “Thoda dikkat to hoga (there will be some difficulties),” acknowledging the challenges ahead, especially for those unaccustomed to such a difficult terrain with no mobile connectivity and limited power supply.

But preparations are meticulous.

“The team will get a satellite phone and runners will be deployed to relay polling data to the headquarters,” Additional District Commissioner Rahul Jain told PTI. “The terrain is tough, but our teams are committed and we have made all the preparations,” he added.

As the journey commenced, the paved road quickly gave way to a narrow and uneven dirt path. The brown hills on either side were dotted with white pools of snow, slowly melting in the sun. In some places, water from the melting snow accumulated on the dirt road, making it dangerous to drive through.

The landscape was breathtaking but completely desolate.” A few houses were visible only because of their bright colours against the brown hills. There is nothing for miles in between, and with no or very limited mobile connectivity, tourists frequently lose their way.

The yellow-coloured polling station with the tricolour painted on its front is perched high on a hill, bleakly empty.

There is barely any vegetation, barring wild grasses.

“Highest polling station of India, Tashigang – 72. Altitude – 4,650 metres,” read a message painted in blue and white on the front wall.

“Swagatam. We heartily welcome all the voters to the world’s highest polling station,” is written in Hindi on the welcome board, adorned with colourful frills.

On reaching the polling station, a Gujarat police personnel accompanying the polling party stepped outside and tried calling home, only to find that there was no network.

“Lag nahi raha hai (the call is not going through),” Takor Mahtoji chuckled, tension replacing the smile on his face.

“This is the first time that I have scaled such heights. Temperatures here are bone-chilling for someone who is not used to such cold conditions. I did not carry any warm clothes and bought new ones after reaching Kaza,” Mahtoji said.

Kumar Prince, the micro-observer for elections at the Tashigang polling station, is a bank clerk from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur.

“Temperatures are reaching 50 degrees Celsius in other parts of the country. Here, it is a different world. I hope everyone has got enough warm clothes,” he told PTI.

“It is a special and important task we have been assigned. If we do not make people in inaccessible terrains part of this process, how can we tell the world that we are the strongest democracy?” Prince said.

During the summer months, temperatures in Tashigang range from 5 to 20 degrees Celsius. But the mercury can drop due to sudden changes in weather.

On May 30, snowfall welcomed the polling party and security personnel, with temperatures dropping to minus 5 degrees Celsius at night.

Winters are harsh and inhospitable, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius. The hills remain buried in snow and the sole dirt road connecting Tashigang to Kaza is closed, confining families to their mud-and-brick homes for six months, said Tanzin Takpa (54), a resident of Tashigang.

“A pregnant woman had to be carried on a yak to the hospital in Kaza at the time of delivery in February. She was lucky,” he said.

There is no hospital, clinic, school or market in Tashigang. The residents travel to Kaza, around 30 kilometres away, for medical and other needs, Takpa said.

The low oxygen concentration at high altitudes can lead to breathing issues. The icy-cold conditions pose a challenge to those arriving in higher hills. Adapting to the local environment could take days, if not weeks, said Kalzang Namgial (40).

This is the fourth time that polling will be conducted at Tashigang, which has been in the record books since 2019 as the highest polling station in the world.

In November 2022, all the eligible voters exercised their franchise despite the immensely cold conditions, Jain told PTI.

A pink-and-white tent has been pitched on one side of the polling station as a sitting area for the voters. The one-storied polling station has two rooms on each side, recently painted bright yellow.

A vehicle carried blankets and mattresses for the polling team and security personnel. Women working with the state’s public works department helped unload it.

On the ground floor, men and women PWD workers prepared tea and dinner for the polling team and security personnel.

A young woman decorated the polling rooms with colourful balloons. She did not look like a local resident.

Gaira Raba, a tourist from Israel, travelled to Tashigang to volunteer. “I have been in India for a month. I came to the Spiti valley a few days ago where I got to know it houses the world’s highest polling station. People told me it is extremely difficult to reach this place and the climatic conditions are very harsh. I could not miss seeing something so amazing. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Raba told PTI.

Lanzom (18), the youngest voter in the nearby Kee village, lent Raba a helping hand.

“Seeing the polling team facilitating the election process in such harsh climatic conditions strengthens one’s trust in democracy. We do not have hospitals, schools, paved roads and permanent jobs, but we have a polling station that is the highest in the world. This is our opportunity to let the government know what we want,” she said.

A selfie point has been set up outside against the brown of the hills and the blue of the skies. “My vote, my right,” it says, capturing the spirit of democracy in the remotest corner of India.


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