Chennai’s mental health institute scripts history, its 159 inmates vote for first time

Saba Rahman
A resident, who has been living at IMH for 15 years now, said: "It's a great feeling. I am 34 and this is my first vote. I am really happy."

"I have a fair idea about Indian politics. I know about the political parties in Tamil Nadu as well as those in north India and central India. Today, I voted according to my own conscience. I had defence, agriculture and economy of the country in mind when I pressed the EVM button."

That was a resident of Institute of Mental Health (IMH), Chennai, who exercised his franchise during the second phase of 2019 Lok Sabha elections held on Thursday. The 46-year-old has been living at IMH for nine years and got a fresh voter ID at the institute’s address just a month ago. He told the over the phone that he had voted earlier but no longer has access to his old voter id that he has at Palavakkam in the city where his family lives.

Another resident, who has been living at IMH for 15 years now, said: "It's a great feeling. I am 34 and this is my first vote. I am really happy."

In a first, as many as 159 residents of IMH that falls in Chennai Central constituency have cast their vote on April 18 — some for the first time ever while others who had voted earlier but don’t have their voter ids with them. Notably, a good number of these residents are cured or healthy but abandoned by their families. All of them were certified by doctors as ‘fit to vote’ after being subjected to tests of decision-making and other related skills.

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IMH, Chennai, established in 1794, has nearly 900 residents.

Dr P Poorna Chandrika, the director at IMH, Chennai, said over the phone: "The residents who have voted are very happy. There is a festive atmosphere here today. It is a historic moment for us, we have all become part of history."

Chandrika said it is the stigma surrounding mental illness and institutionalised discrimination that has so far deprived such people from their right to vote even as there is nothing in the law that bars them from voting. "Unlike us, they are asked questions like: should they vote, can they vote," she says, adding only persons who have been declared as being of 'unsound mind' by a court cannot vote.

Earlier this year, members of Disability Rights Alliance, an NGO, along with the Chennai Corporation helped the residents fill their voter id forms.

A polling booth was also set up at IMH. Two days ahead of the vote, there was a demonstration of the Electronic Voting Machines on the campus and the voters were also made aware of the parties in the fray. "Residents here are quite informed. They have access to newspapers and TV news as well," said Dr Chandrika.