KARACHI: Every day for the past several weeks, Raza Shah goes door to door from morning till late night, distributing pamphlets and spreading awareness about his candidacy in the upcoming general elections, often engaging in long and arduous discussions with his constituents over why they should vote for him.
What may seem like an insignificant task for many able-bodied individuals is a challenge worth accepting for this polio-affected candidate who campaigns with the aid of a walking stick. “If there wasn’t a challenge, I won’t be doing it”, smiles Raza, while speaking to The Express Tribune.
Shah, a 35-year-old independent candidate from PS-103, is up against some political bigwigs, including Tanzeel bin Abdul Rauf from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), Shehzad Memon of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Bilal Ahmed Ghaffar from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Some areas that fall under the PS-103 constituency include Faisal Cantonment, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Gulistan-e-Jauhar and Bahadurabad, situated in Karachi’s District East and home to around 234,000 registered voters.
Shah holds a Bachelor’s degree in banking and commerce and has over 10 years of experience with various financial institutions, which he had to quit in order to dedicate his time and efforts towards the election campaign.
“I contracted polio virus when I was just a year and a half old, despite being vaccinated,” Shah tells The Express Tribune. “The vaccines at the hospital were expired which cost me dearly. Initially, I suffered from full body paralysis, but miraculously I recovered and now have function in over half of my body. I still use a walking stick but it didn’t discourage me and I was able to overcome my disability and excel in life,” he adds.
In the face of such adversity, however, Shah refuses to let his disability be an obstacle. “I want to make the electoral process accessible to the common man,” he explains. “Personally if I am able to overcome my disability to change things, what is stopping you?”
He could have joined any political party but that wouldn’t serve the ultimate purpose, he says. “I am running as an independent candidate because I am free to make my own decisions for the greater good of my constituents,” he says, adding that he would need to have 2,000 political workers and 1.2 million rupees in his bank account to even register his own party. “How can anyone even afford this democracy when it’s not even within their reach?” he questions.
Shah went on to add that he had no complaints against the government or society in general. “I don’t have any complaints with the government nor am I campaigning for your sympathies. I am running in this election because I believe in an electoral process that is for the people and by the people, which is why I am campaigning for a more inclusive society.”
The 35-year-old said it was a good sign that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had been able to facilitate people with disabilities (PwDs) to cast their votes in the general elections through postal balloting, adding however that there was serious lack of awareness on how the system worked because many PwDs weren’t familiar with the digital registration process. At many polling stations, he said, volunteers were there to help but the last time he went to vote back in 2013, Shah had to climb five floors of a school building in order to cast his vote.
Shah proposed to reserve 2% of the seats in the National Assembly for differently-abled individuals, so that this marginalised community could better represent themselves at the national level. According to the last census of 2017, differently-abled people constitute 10% of the total population in Pakistan.
When it comes to some of the challenges faced by differently-abled people, Shah said, “Our public transport is not safe for us. We don’t have public toilets and medical facilities easily available at our disposable and even our education system, malls and offices aren’t inclusive”.
But Shah hasn’t lost hope yet. “I see change happening as a society, new education institutes, shopping malls and apartment projects are incorporating ramps for wheelchair-bound individuals, but more needs to be done.”
He emphasized that there should be more job opportunities for differently-abled people and that the society as a whole must be sensitised to the rights of those who are differently-abled. But first, he says, people must exercise their right to vote. “People must vote. Every vote matters and when you vote for a candidate, just vote for them if they’re right. Don’t vote for them on the basis of their caste, creed or religion,” he says.