Independent India was gearing up to hold its first elections in 1952 and inside a factory in the marshy suburbs of Mumbai’s Vikhroli, the workers were making history, literally.
It was the latter half of 1951 and from the outside, it was business as usual at Plant 1 of the Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd. But unbeknownst to many, the workers were part of a nationbuilding project, assigned the task of speedily manufacturing the first ever ballot boxes to be used in general elections in India.
Archives of the company indicate that a total of 12.83 lakh ballot boxes were produced in the Vikhroli factory in barely four months. “A newspaper, Bombay Chronicle, had printed an article on December 15, 1951, saying the factory was manufacturing 15,000 ballot boxes a day.
This, without affecting the production of any of their other products like safes, cupboards, cabinets and locks, proves that the workers at the factory were putting in extra hours every day to ensure that the ballot boxes were readied in time,” said Vrunda Pathare, chief archivist at Godrej.
An official from the archives division said an ad in The Times of India published by Godrej shows that the original order was for 12.24 lakh ballot boxes but they ended up making 12.83 lakh. “It’s probably because orders were given to other companies as well and those who did not finish them in time passed the order on to Godrej in the end,” said the official.
The production cost of one ‘olive green’ box came to Rs 5 and the model was finalised after testing 50 designs. The internal locking system in the ballot box was designed by a factory hand, Nathalal Panchal, after it was found that an external lock would inflate the making cost.
“We have anecdotal evidence that Panchal played a key role in suggesting the design for the internal locking mechanism,” said Pathare. That story is now part of an oral history project of 2006 when company officials interviewed KR Thanewala, the plant manager of Plant 1 in 1951, who is now no more. Thanewala had recalled during the interview that Plant 1 had just started in May 1951.
“Pirojsha Godrej (the owner) would come to the factory at 3 o’clock every afternoon asking us how it was going. And he got orders from other companies who had not somehow or the other managed to make them (ballot boxes). The mechanism was tested. Every box had to be checked. Click when it closes and click it should open. Once it was closed, without putting your finger inside and pulling the string, you cannot unlock it,” he said.
By February 1952, all the ballot boxes were manufactured, loaded onto railway wagons and sent to the 22 states in preparation for the holding of the polls. Thanewala, in his interview, describes how the boxes were moved: “…We had to walk to the station and back. And…I did a lot of night shifts. At night we (used to) light mashaals (torches) and with the mashaal, I used to walk from the railway tracks up to Vikhroli station. It was great fun.”
SAFE KEEPING: Bombay policemen guarding the ballot boxes that were used in the first Lok Sabha polls held over 1951-52
Times of India, 17 March 2019, Pg. 15