At 102, India’s oldest voter all set to poll for record 32nd time

Shyam Negi at age 102. (Supplied photo)
Updated 15 March 2019

At 102, India’s oldest voter all set to poll for record 32nd time

  • The retired teacher has cast his vote in every major poll since the country’s first elections in 1951
  • He has the distinction of being the first ever Indian to complete an election ballot paper

NEW DELHI: At 102, India’s oldest voter Shyam Negi is all set to head to the polls for a national record 32nd time.

The retired teacher has cast his vote in every major poll since the country’s first elections in 1951.

And the father-of-seven, who in 2014 was made brand ambassador and mascot for the Election Commission of India, has the distinction of being the first ever Indian to complete an election ballot paper.

Although an ardent supporter of India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Negi believes the outcome of recent Indian-Pakistani tensions over Kashmir could be a crucial deciding factor in the result of India’s general elections later this year.

Negi will be keeping abreast of developments by listening to news updates on his trusty Philips radio from his Kalpa village home in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, a state in northern India.

“A lot has changed in India since 1951 when I voted for the first time,” Negi told Arab News.

“Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) was a tall leader and his speeches used to sway the voters. India was just taking baby steps as a new nation when it held its first election. There was a new hope, new desire and a new air,” he said.

India’s 17th general election will be held from April 11 to May 19 this year, and Negi said he cannot wait to vote again. 

“If you include local elections, legislative elections and all the previous polls, I have voted 31 times and I am quite keen to vote for a 32nd time too.”

Negi retired as a school teacher in 1979 and since then has been living in Kalpa with his youngest son. A father of four daughters and three sons, Negi lost his wife three years ago. But that hasn’t stopped him from being treated as something of a local celebrity, especially on the back of his Election Commission of India mascot status.

He is credited as being the first person to vote in India. In 1951, the election in his parliamentary constituency took place three months ahead of schedule to avoid bad weather. 

Negi said he was on election duty that day but had to go to another village to oversee the polls. So, he asked the polling agent in his village to take his vote before he left, therefore filling in his ballot paper before anyone else.

“Democracy is a dynamic process. Your vote is not a piece of paper but a weapon that one can use to change the direction of the country,” added Negi, who claims to have seen Mahatma Gandhi during a visit by the Indian activist to Shimla.

“Politics has also undergone change. Earlier there was the (Indian National) Congress party which was dominant, now there are many parties and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is the powerful party,” said Negi.

“It is a beauty of democracy that anyone can occupy high office. Even a tea-seller can become a prime minister (referring to Modi).”

Negi said every vote counted, and he urged young people to “understand the power of the vote” and turn out in force at the forthcoming elections.

Although never having considered being a politician himself, Negi has always taken a keen interest in politics, and believes Modi deserves the chance of another term in office.

Negi’s hearing may be deteriorating, but not enough to stop him from tuning into his radio. “On May 19, I will cast my vote when the elections are held in the village. I am really keen to know the result of this election,” he said.

Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

A woman poses for a photo among poppies in bloom on the hills of Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California, on March 8, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2019

Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

  • More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

LAKE ELSINORE, California: Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” the Southern California city of Lake Elsinore is being overwhelmed by the power of the poppies.
About 150,000 people over the weekend flocked to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near the city of about 60,000 residents, about a 90-minute drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles.
Interstate 15 was a parking lot. People fainted in the heat; a dog romping through the fields was bitten by a rattlesnake.
A vibrant field of poppies lures Dorothy into a trap in the “Wizard of Oz” when the wicked witch, acknowledging that no one can resist their beauty, poisons the wildflowers and she slips into a fatal slumber until the good witch reverses the spell.
Lake Elsinore had tried to prepare for the crush of people drawn by the super bloom, a rare occurrence that usually happens about once a decade because it requires a wet winter and warm temperatures that stay above freezing.
It offered a free shuttle service to the top viewing spots, but it wasn’t enough.
Sunday traffic got so bad that Lake Elsinore officials requested law enforcement assistance from neighboring jurisdictions. At one point, the city pulled down the curtain and closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon.
“It was insane, absolutely insane,” said Mayor Steve Manos, who described it as a “poppy apocalypse.”
By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened.
And people were streaming in again.
Young and old visitors to the Lake Elsinore area seemed equally enchanted as they snapped selfies against the natural carpet of iridescent orange.
Some contacted friends and family on video calls so they could share the beauty in real time. Artists propped canvasses on the side of the trail to paint the super bloom, while drones buzzed overhead.
Patty Bishop, 48, of nearby Lake Forest, was on her second visit. The native Californian had never seen such an explosion of color from the state flower. She battled traffic Sunday but that didn’t deter her from going back Monday for another look. She got there at sunrise and stayed for hours.
“There’s been so many in just one area,” she said. “I think that’s probably the main reason why I’m out here personally is because it’s so beautiful.”
Stephen Kim and his girlfriend got to Lake Elsinore even before sunrise Sunday to beat the crowds but there were already hundreds of people.
The two wedding photographers hiked on the designated trails with an engaged couple to do a photo shoot with the flowers in the background, but they were upset to see so many people going off-trail and so much garbage. They picked up as many discarded water bottles as they could carry.
“You see this beautiful pristine photo of nature but then you look to the left and there’s plastic Starbucks cups and water bottles on the trail and selfie sticks and people having road rage because some people were walking slower,” said Kim, 24, of Carlsbad.
Andy Macuga, honorary mayor of the desert town of Borrego Springs, another wildflower hotspot, said he feels for Lake Elsinore.
In 2017, a rain-fed super bloom brought in more than a half-million visitors to the town of 3,500. Restaurants ran out of food. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Traffic backed up on a single road for 20 miles (32 kilometers).
The city is again experiencing a super bloom.
The crowds are back. Hotels are full. More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest park with 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. kilometers).
But it helps that the masses of blooms are appearing in several different areas this time, and some sections are fading, while others are lighting up with flowers, helping to disperse the crowds a bit.
Most importantly, Macuga said, the town’s businesses prepared this time as if a major storm was about to hit. His restaurant, Carlee’s, is averaging more than 550 meals a day, compared to 300 on a normal March day.
“We were completely caught off guard in 2017 because it was the first time that we had had a flower season like this with social media,” he said. “It helps now knowing what’s coming.”