The Indian government’s push for the passage of a key bill allowing proxy voting rights for India’s 25 million-strong diaspora — also known as non-resident Indians or NRIs — has shone the spotlight on the 200 million migrant workers within India who remain far removed from the voting process.
Proxy voting rights will allow India’s overseas demographic to vote from the country where they are currently based, a privilege that still remains elusive to internal migrants.
Civil rights groups feel that domestic migrants, who are direct stakeholders in the country’s future, deserve attention over the privileged NRIs, who have a lesser stake in India’s good governance and are only at best only fringe beneficiaries of its policies.
Article 326 of the Indian Constitution states that every adult citizen is entitled to be registered in the electoral roll from her parliamentary and assembly constituency. The disenfranchising of domestic migrants is thus a serious infirmity in the electoral process of the world’s largest democracy, apart from being highly discriminatory.
Upcoming elections to the 17th Lok Sabha will choose 543 members of parliament from single-member constituencies across the country. It will also decide the fate of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government, which romped home to victory in 2014 with a historic mandate. However, the Modi government is currently buffeted by headwinds due to policy missteps, lack of jobs, and a rising tide of Hindutva or right-wing radicalism that is making the educated middle class nervous.
According to current electoral laws, internal migrants cannot vote unless they travel back to their home constituencies. This expense prevents a majority of them from voting. An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, which studies migration trends across India, points out that a state of continuous drift prevents migrant workers from exercising their political rights. Because migrants are not entitled to vote outside of their place of origin, some are simply unable to cast their votes.
A 2011 study on the political inclusion of seasonal migrant workers by Amrita Sharma and her co-authors found that 22 percent of seasonal migrant workers in India did not possess voter IDs or have their names registered in the voter list. The study noted that “many migrants leave their home at an age as early as 13-14. The voter ID is issued at an age of 18 or more. When they become eligible to get a voter ID, their work life is at its peak and their trips to home short in duration.”
Many migrants are reported to not have the time to get their voter IDs made and a staggering 83 percent of long distance migrants reported missing voting in elections at least once because they were away from home seeking better livelihood opportunities. Because of this, migrant workers are often left unable to make political demands for entitlements or seek reforms, states the report.
Internal migration — an exponentially growing phenomenon — shapes the economic, social, and political contours of India’s 29 states. Studies suggest that roughly 25 percent to 30 percent of Indians are internal migrants who have moved across district or state lines, a staggering number for a country with a population that tops 1.3 billion.
According to Ravi Srivastava, an economist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, as many as three out of every 10 Indians have moved away from their homes, usually in search of a better job. That’s why many have called for absentee voting to become available to all of India’s 814 million-strong electorate.
Internal migrants in India largely comprise married women moving to their new marital homes in different cities or villagers relocating to urban areas for better economic opportunities due to growing distress in the farm sector. A sizeable portion of these migrants are contract workers who have no job security and are usually far removed from the government’s social and structural framework. They also cannot access social welfare benefits either in their homes or in their current places of residence.
“If they also cannot vote, their isolation from the national mainstream becomes complete,” says Preet Dagar of the Institute of Economic Growth in New Delhi. “Besides, when you leave out such a large demographic of voters from exercising their democratic right, you undermine the electoral diversity and pluralism of the world’s largest democracy. It isn’t a true reflection of a people’s mandate then.”
The economic factor is also often a bottleneck among migrants seeking to vote. Working as a food vendor in the arterial, clogged lanes of New Delhi’s old quarters, Sham Lal says he earns a sparse 200 rupees ($3) a day in the Indian capital city, most of which he sends back to his family in far flung Madhya Pradesh.
“I live hand to mouth and earn barely enough to feed my family of four. Where’s the money to go back to my village to cast my vote? Voting is the last thing on my mind,” he states matter-of-factly. “I return to my village once every three-four months, that’s about as much expense as I can spare,” he said.
An inter-ministerial group was asked by the Prime Minister’s Office last year to look into the feasibility of granting domestic migrant workers alternative voting facilities. However, the Election Commission expressed its difficulty in tracking the movement of such migrants and the inability to extend alternative voting rights to domestic migrants on the lines of overseas Indians.
The Election Commission has suggested that domestic migrants register themselves as voters in the area where they move for employment. The rules, sources in the Commission said, are easy for anyone to register as voter. As per current guidelines, the day a person moves in at a new address, he or she is free to apply as a voter. But such options can be explored only when stronger and better data are available on such voters, say critics.
“Because Indians must cast their ballots in person at an assigned polling station near their registered address, voting becomes a cumbersome exercise for those who migrate from one state to another,” states an election officer who spoke to this correspondent on the condition of anonymity. “At present only members of the armed forces, those on election duty, some displaced communities, senior government ministers, and Indian diplomats outside the country are entitled to vote by post or through a proxy.”
But as political pundits point out, a democracy is not only about the conduct of free and fair elections but also making voting more inclusive and participatory. The political inclusion of domestic migrants in elections in India can broaden and deepen the canvas of democratic governance in the country.
The rapid pace of urbanization in India implies that migration is likely to increase and it is imperative that the government responds with a more inclusive national policy. What is also needed, warn constitutional experts, are updates to chronically outdated voting rolls to reflect new migrants.
India’s migrants are important contributors to India’s economy. Yet they remain deprived of social protections as well as the most fundamental of rights in a democracy — the right to vote.
So as millions of Indians prepare to cast their ballots in a crucially important election weeks from now, a majority of India’s domestic migrants will remain mute spectators in an electoral exercise deemed the biggest in history of the world.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist.