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The Realities of Voting in India

Perspectives from Internal Labour Migrants

S Irudaya Rajan (rajan@cds.ac.in) is with the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. Ashwin Kumar (ashwin.reddevils@gmail.com) is a doctoral student at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi. Arokkiaraj Heller (arokkiaraj2006@gmail.com) is with the Department of Social Work, University of Delhi.

While the nature of work and consequent socio-economic realities deprive migrant workers within India of their voting rights, the lack of official documentation of internal migration, especially for informal employment, prevents any conscientious policy actions for addressing the issue.

For the first time ever, the Economic Survey, 2017, provided an estimate of internal work-related migration using railways data for the period 2011–16 (GOI 2017). The results showed an average interstate migration of almost nine million people a year. While migrants from the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh largely move to Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat, those from the eastern states of Jharkhand and Odisha travel not only to Kolkata in West Bengal, but also to Kerala, in increasing numbers.

According to the 2011 Census, 51 million migrants moved within India for economic reasons, constituting nearly 10% of the labour force. This gives rise to a concern about the political voicelessness of these migrant workers who are unable to practise their voting rights because of economic migration. There are no statistics available on how many migrant workers have changed their constituency to vote at their current work location. Yet, it is intuitively understandable that economic realities—such as daily wage-based work arrangements, and the time and cost of travel to their domicile—will exclude them from the participatory process of voting, which is their constitutional right. This article tries to understand the various barriers that exclude internal economic migrants from participating in the electoral process by examining the narratives of migrants working as daily wage labourers in Kerala. These migrants are mainly natives of West Bengal and Odisha, who have found work in Kerala largely because of a large number of Keralites moving abroad for work. The current estimate of internal migrants to Kerala is estimated at 3 million, as against 2.2 million international emigrants from the state. The migrants, however, find jobs largely in the informal manufacturing and construction sectors. This article builds on the perspectives from these workers to give an idea about the nature of work and the extent of work-related freedom available to the internal migrants in India.

India as a federal republic and as the largest participatory democracy in the world ensures all its citizens the right to universal adult franchise. This entails that every citizen of India aged 18 or above has the freedom to vote in any election in the country. However, each citizen of India is tied to a specific place to cast their vote, that is, their vote is not portable across regions. This is where the issue of migrant voting rights comes in.

There are three key categories of voters/electors in this country: general electors or Indian residents who can directly cast their votes at a polling booth, service electors or Indian citizens currently working for the Government of India but posted outside India, and the overseas electors or the non-resident Indians (NRIs) who reside in another country but do not have the citizenship of that country (Elections.in 2014). Clearly, the internal migrants come under the first category of general electors. Come election time, it is expected that they would visit their local polling booths to cast their votes. However, as the rest of the article argues, it is extremely tough to do so even in the best of circumstances.

Nature of Migration and Voting

There is a preponderance of informal sector employment among the economic migrants. Most of them are employed in the informal segments within larger sectors like construction and manufacturing, on a rotational basis. A lot of these workers are seasonal migrants who look for work during the off seasons of agriculture. As a result, their migration is temporary, and as such it makes no sense for them to change their voting areas to their place of work. As mentioned by a construction worker from Bihar:

I wouldn’t like to shift my area of vote to this place because I don’t see myself settling down here. I will go wherever I get a decent job. I would always prefer to vote in my native town.

Moreover, even if they did decide to vote in the destination, the lack of knowledge of local politics and larger agendas leads them to stay away from local politics. When asked whether they would consider participating in local elections, a group of workers mentioned that

We don’t understand the local elections. All of the election material is in Malayalam and we have no idea of the election issues here—we don’t have the time from our work. Thus, we have no inclination of voting here, we feel more comfortable voting in our hometowns only.

Thus, the above narratives throw light on an important but often overlooked issue of voting—that is, footloose migration—which is the reality of a large numbers of migrant workers in the country.

However, what also comes across are the various well-documented socio-economic issues that migrant workers face, especially those working in the informal sector. For instance, the incidence of low daily wages constrains both the decisions and the feasibility of any impromptu movement of these migrant workers, even if it is for executing their voting rights.

Though the freedom of movement is a constitutional right of all Indian citizens, for the migrant workers, the very nature of their work disrupts the execution of this right by trapping them in their destinations of work. The main issue faced by workers is the economic strain of quitting even a day’s work to go back to their hometown and vote. As told by one worker:

If I have to think about casting my vote in my hometown, it comes at a serious cost. I earn daily wages, which means I have to work every day to earn about ₹ 300 per day. If I have to go back home to cast my vote, I have to take a leave and forfeit that amount per day.

The worker emphasised his point further by saying,

Plus, I cannot go home for a couple of days. I will have to go home for at least a week to meet all my family members and buy things for them from the city, which costs extra money. It’s easier to avoid all of that.

The above explanation also clearly puts forward the fact that besides sending remittances, there is also the pressure of expectations from family and peers that the migrants will bring back gifts from the cities during their home visits. While such gifts are signs of prestige to the families, to the migrant worker these are economic dampeners of their decision to travel to their home constituencies for voting.

With increase in the number of workers from the north and the migrants from eastern India to the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala as part of the informal labour population in these states, one can easily imagine the significant amount of time and money that is involved in travelling across such wide distances. When put together with the amount of income lost by losing man-days of work, this becomes a serious factor in dissuading the migrants from going back to simply cast a vote.

In the course of a discussion with a group of Bihari migrant workers in Chennai, one of them mentioned,

When I was working in Delhi, it was not much of an issue for me to go to my hometown to cast my vote. Taking a couple of days leave, I could take an overnight train to Bihar—at not much cost—reach early morning, cast my vote later in the day and then board the evening train back to Delhi. Now that I am working in Chennai, that option is not open for me anymore. Thus, I’m not voting this time.

This encapsulates how spatial distance is emerging as a key constraint for a large mass of the Indian population to engage in the participatory democracy framework that is enshrined in the Constitution.

Response of the State

The lack of a coherent migration policy—whether it is for international or internal migrants in India—has been noted before. However, while the issues of international migrants are more prominent and easily recognisable—with the Election Commission of India maintaining a database of the total number of registered overseas electors in the country—internal migration remains largely undocumented and hence invisible. Answering to a Lok Sabha question in 2016 the ruling government had admitted of the lack of data on migrants at a nation-wide level, with the numbers given in the Economic Survey 2016–17 being the very first estimates of the number of internal migrants in the country (GOI 2016). Consequentially, the issue of voting of the internal migrants also gets overlooked.

An example that puts this fact in clear light is another response of the government to a question put forward by E T Mohammed Basheer in the Lok Sabha in January 2019 on the issue of voting of internal migrants. The response stated that apart from the Interstate Migrant Workers Act, 1979, there is no central policy or legislation that looks into the issues of internal migration, nor has there been widespread studies on the various social dimensions of this phenomenon (GOI 2019). Again, in responding to a Rajya Sabha question in 2018 on the provision of proxy votes for overseas voters and internal migrants, the government had stated that while an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951 is underway to allow proxy voting for overseas voters, no such provisions are in place for the internal migrants (GOI 2018). Thus, it is obvious that understanding this issue will need, at the very least, a coherent migration policy to chart out all the various issues regarding migration within India and the way forward from there.

While these migrant workers might be interested in casting their votes, the reality of their work lives and the various socio-economic hurdles that they need to overcome act as barriers to achieve it. Given the large number of workers who stay away from their hometowns and registration centres, this puts into question the very essence of participatory democracy, where every vote from every citizen should carry equal importance. However, the narratives provided in this article showcase problems that go beyond those just surrounding migration and voting. The article also provides a glimpse into the curtailing of political and economic rights that a significant number of Indian citizens face because of the nature of their work and economic decisions. This juxtaposition of rights enshrined in the Constitution against the socio-economic reality of casting one’s vote should be studied further. Perhaps with internal migration becoming more and more recognised as a phenomenon, this issue will be debated and discussed much more seriously in the future.

References

Elections.In (2014): “Election FAQs,” 20 November, viewed on 2 May 2019, http://www.elections.in/election-faqs.html.

GoI (2016): Lok Sabha, Unstarred Question No 4350, Answered by Bandaru Dattatreya, Ministry of Labour and Employment.

— (2017): Chapter: 12, “India on the Move and Churning: New Evidence,” Economic Survey 2016–2017, Ministry of Finance.

— (2018): Rajya Sabha, Unstarred Question No 421, answered by P P Chaudhary, Ministry of Law and Justice.

— (2019): Lok Sabha, Unstarred Question No 4233, answered by Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Ministry of Labour and Employment.

Updated On : 3rd May, 2019

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