A Journey to the Highest Polling Station in India

May 14, 2014 at 2:55 PM ET

“Run for cover!” a man shouted.

“Protect the machine!” another yelled as a sandstorm surged toward me.

I was standing beside two tents, pitched at 16,400 feet above sea level in a desert plateau in Ladakh, a region in northern India along the Tibetan border. It was roughly a week before the end of India’s national elections, and as the storm approached, the men—government employees working at a makeshift polling station—were scrambling to protect the electronic voting machine.

The wind ripped through the desert, gathering dust and sand, and spiraled toward the polling station. I tried to snap as many photos as I could, ignoring warnings to take cover. The dust was flying into my eyes, but this was Indian democracy in action.

Over the past six months, as India’s elections have unfolded, most of the attention has focused on the rise of Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist, who’s likely to emerge as prime minister when the results are announced on Friday.

But here in the world’s largest democracy, what’s most remarkable is the process itself, a monumental task in a country where close to 540 million people voted before the polls closed on Monday.

There is no polling station at a higher elevation in India than the one I visited, known as Anlay Fu. Many of the voters—mostly nomadic shepherds who make a meager living selling pashmina wool—trekked for hours through the mountainous desert, arriving by horse, by mule and by foot.

The logistics seemed impossible to manage, but that didn’t deter the workers manning the polls. As Simrandeep Singh, a 28-year-old government official who organized the elections in Ladakh, said: “We do everything so that everyone gets a chance to vote.”

Just getting to Anlay Fu was difficult. From Leh—the largest town in Ladakh—it’s a half-day slog by jeep over 125 miles to Anlay, the nearest town to the polling station. From there, it’s a three-hour drive across 37 miles of unmarked desert.

Sonam, a local man, who offered to drive me to the polling station for a modest fee, deftly managed to dodge the crater-size potholes as his jeep bumped over the road, stirring up dust as we followed the blue-green waters of the Indus River.

As we climbed to 13,000 feet, we saw campaign posters, some of them shredded by the wind, dotting the landscape.

The higher we climbed, the fewer posters we saw and the harder it was to breathe—though Sonam, who is from the area, had no problem; he puffed cigarettes the whole way. Eventually, the dirt roads vanished and there was nothing but our jeep, the wilderness and my altitude-induced headache as I watched the scenery shift from desert to snow-capped mountains then back sand.

At such heights, both democracy and directions are difficult. And if it weren’t for a few friendly nomads, we might never have found our way. They told us a bus had passed a day prior, and we eventually found the tire marks, which led us right to the polling station.

The tents in Anlay Fu served 85 registered voters, 47 women and 38 men, who live scattered around the area. Locals say there are another 60 or 70 people who live nearby, all without electricity and mobile phones. Most consume only lentils and meat; few vegetables grow in Ladakh, and for six months out of the year no one can come or go because the roads are blocked with snow.

Running an election in a district this remote isn’t easy. This year, workers set up 531 polling stations for 160,000 voters in Ladakh, an area roughly the size of Ohio. One station serves just 10 people. Many stations can be accessed only by horse, mule or helicopter.

Making sure the vote went smoothly at Anlay Fu was a daunting task. There were five government officials and two security guards manning the polls. The night before the vote, all slept in tents at below-freezing temperatures.

Leading the effort was a 40-something man named Asgar Ali. I met him at the beginning of my trip, and he cautioned me against making the climb with the election officials.

“Madam, we are used to [the altitude], but we cannot take responsibility if you are unwell,” he said, gruffly. “We won’t be able to turn back for you.”

When I saw Ali two days later, his eyes looked tired and his hair was windswept. “You made it,” he said, smiling broadly. “Wonderful.”

I was still taking in the breathtaking scenery: the sand dunes and the bright blue sky, the mountains looming in the distance like snow-capped sentinels. But Ali was weary, worn out by the long bus ride and the elements. “It was just too cold,” he said.

Ali wasn’t sentimental about his journey here, but he clearly felt his work was important. “Duty,” he said with a shrug when I asked him why he came.

Tsering Dolma, 38, felt the same way. For months she had been working to register the shepherds. She knew the conditions would be harsh, but the day before the vote occurred, she panicked. She was the only woman on the team. While the men slept in a flimsy tent they’d brought, she had nowhere to sleep.

Some of her male colleagues suggested she try the bus. But that evening, a shepherd came by with his wife and mother, and they offered to put her up for the night. Their home was two hours away by horseback, and their roof was made from yak hair. But Dolma was relieved. “It was cold but better than the bus,” she said. “I am thankful for their hospitality.”

The next day, the vote began at 7 a.m. Few of the voters I met talked much about the Modi, but they knew about the local candidates from India’s major parties, and the independent candidates, who had made their pitches in the area. Most voters wouldn’t tell me how they cast their ballots. But the older among them wanted a higher rate for their pashmina wool, which they sell to the government for roughly $500 to $700 every year.

The younger voters, however, wanted to connect the area around Anlay Fu to Anlay, the nearest town. Changchup Palmo, 20, was one of them. This was the first election she had ever participated in, and she traveled 93 miles from Nyoma, a town where she’s attending high school. Her family has been shepherds for generations, but she wants to move and find a government job. “I want to make a good life,” she said, “and then take care of my parents.”

By and large, the vote went smoothly. For months, Ali and his team had been preparing, but there are some things you can’t plan for. By mid-afternoon, most of the registered voters had cast their ballots, and we got word that an election observer was on his way to inspect the polls. He never made it. We later learned that his car got stuck on a rock as he tried to cross a large stream.

And then, of course, there was the storm. As the dust and sand spiraled towards us, I eventually followed the workers and security guards and scurried to safety. When the storm passed, I looked back to access the damage; the wind had spared both tents.

The voting machines—and the ballots—were safe.

“Everyone feeling OK?” Ali asked. “Let’s make some tea.”