Ernakulam and Bengaluru: Kartik Naik is in his 40s, and works as a mason’s helper in the Nettoor area, in Kerala’s Ernakulam, where mostly Odia male migrant labourers reside. As polling for his state’s assembly and for the Lok Sabha nears, Kartik says that he does not plan to return to his hometown of Surada in Ganjam district, 1,800 km away, to vote. “I cannot leave my job and go home just to vote, and spend money on travel and other expenses,” said Kartik.

Unlike him, his roommate Babulal Naik was returning home after a year for a much-needed break, he said, which also happens to coincide with elections. In nearly three decades, the roommates--both from the Scheduled Caste Pano community in Odisha--have worked in Surat, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Ernakulam.

Migrant workers contribute 10% of India’s gross domestic product. But exercising their vote during elections is a struggle for many. They lose wages during the period they are not working, plus they have to spend money for the trip home and back. Thus they lose both ways, interstate migrant workers from Odisha, West Bengal, and Assam working in Ernakulam told IndiaSpend.

In the 2019 general election, 300 million electors did not vote, which is twice the population of Russia or more than the populations of the UK, Spain, France, Portugal, Netherlands and Germany combined. While the 300 million non-voters are not all migrant workers, the issue of lack of mobility of various groups including migrant workers hampers their voting rights, said experts.

According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), the inability to vote due to internal migration is a “prominent reason contributing to low voter turnout”.. In early 2023, the ECI sought a discussion and feedback from political parties on the multi-constituency prototype Remote Electronic Voting Machine (RVM). But in March 2023, the government informed Parliament that there was no proposal to introduce remote voting for domestic migrants.

Migrant workers said that it would be ideal if they could cast votes at the work destinations instead of having to travel to their home states. Absent this option, migrant worker participation in the upcoming election, which will be held in seven phases across 44 days, is expected to be minimal.

Migrants cannot afford to lose jobs and income to cast votes

Temporary migrant workers become vulnerable because they have to forgo work and their daily wages to travel to their home states to cast votes.

Kartik and Babulal are children of agricultural labourers and marginal farmers, and have never attended school. They began working as migrant labourers in the late 1990s, a few years after India’s economic liberalisation. In three decades, their daily wages have increased from Rs 100 to Rs 900 for work that can span for 8 to 12 hours depending on the sector and the state. The money they save is sent to their families, usually each week.

“I send around Rs 4,000 depending on how much work I get,” said Kartik.

He recalled that in the 13 years he worked in a loom factory in Surat, he spent 12 hours each day standing, and the intensity of the work affected his eyesight. He moved to Kerala because he owed Rs 50,000 to a moneylender which he borrowed for his own wedding, and he had heard that wages were better in the southern state.

The Covid pandemic hit his earning capacity and he was forced to spend nearly two years in Surada, in Odisha’s Ganjam district, earning around Rs 300 a day. He is now back in Kerala, trying to make up for lost time. Spending two days travelling to his hometown, which can cost Rs 4,000 each way, and losing days of work and wages, is not feasible, he says.

“If I could vote here, it would have been good. I will not have to spend that much money,” said Kartik.

Perumbavoor’s Palakkattuthazham--an area locally identified as ‘Bhai colony’ where migrants from Assam and West Bengal reside--was buzzing with activity late in the evening. Bhai is a term for male migrant workers in Kerala.

The ECI is aware of the circumstances for domestic migrants. It had noted that, if implemented, the RMV initiative “...can lead to a social transformation for the migrants and connect with their roots as many times they are reluctant to get themselves enrolled at their place of work for various reasons…”

Ram Babu Bhagat, former professor and head, Department of Migration and Urban Studies, International Institute for Population Sciences, said that remote voting is not the only solution. “The voting-related challenge is not confined to the issue of migration, but a larger issue of mobility,” said Bhagat, adding that a large number of student migrants and emigrants holding Indian passports also face challenges in casting their vote.

A 2010-11 report by Aajeevika Bureau, based on surveys in five states--Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat--on the political inclusion of seasonal migrants said that “a large number of migrants are unable to participate in the electoral process, both at the source and at the destination”.

The study showed that around 60% of respondents had missed voting in elections at least once because they were away from home seeking livelihood options. This rose to 83% when adjusted for short distance movement where it was easier to return.

The study showed that 54% of migrants ever returned to vote. Most of them (65%) went back to vote in their last panchayat elections, while 54% and 44% voted in the last state or parliamentary elections, respectively. The commonly cited reason for higher participation in panchayat elections was “social pressure” due to a close relative or member from the same community contesting.

Around 30 km from Nettoor in Perumbavoor’s Palakkattuthazham--an area locally identified as ‘Bhai colony’ where migrants from Assam and West Bengal reside--was buzzing with activity late in the evening. (Bhai is a term for male migrant workers in Kerala.)

Rento Sekh, 28, a construction worker from Murshidabad who lives nearby, is clear that he will not go home to vote. He last voted in the 2023 West Bengal panchayat elections because he was at the time visiting family in Murshidabad, 2,500 km from Ernakulam.

Sekh, who has worked in Kerala for eight years, earns Rs 800 daily, four times the wage he would have earned in Murshidabad. “Unless I am there during elections, I do not plan on returning to my village to vote. We get Rs 200 for agricultural work there. How can we feed ourselves and support our children's education?,” he asks.

A large number of migrants are not registered to vote. Voting in India is a statutory right and not a fundamental right, which means a claim has to be made to vote by registering to vote, Ashwani Kumar, social scientist and Dean, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, says. “This impacts marginalised groups. Missing 300 million voters in elections is paradoxically a huge democratic deficit amidst deepening of democracy.”

Rento Sekh, 28, from Murshidabad does not plan to return home to vote. “We get Rs 200 for agricultural work there. How can we feed ourselves and support our children's education?,” he asks.

But there are also those like Nazrul Islam, 26, a plywood factory worker who hails from Assam’s Nagaon and who is going back with his young family. He estimates an expenditure of Rs 12,000 for the family to return to vote, travelling a distance of nearly 3,400 km from Ernakulam.

“I will have to find a new job when I come back to Kerala,” said Nazrul. “We do not get anything by voting, but I do vote.” He has lived in Kerala since he was 13, and went back to vote in the 2016 state elections and the 2019 general elections. He too would prefer it if they could remotely vote from Perumbavoor, which will save him money and also the uncertainties of finding a new occupation when he returns.

Nazrul Islam, a migrant worker from Nagaon in Assam, will go back to vote. He expects the expense, for his young family, to be around Rs 12,000 one way for the 3,400-km distance from Ernakulam.

Both Islam and Sekh said that there were some concerns about the notification of rules of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the associated National Registry of Citizens, due to which they feel that more migrants are returning to vote this year. The CAA and NRC are hot button issues in Assam and West Bengal. Both said that they have ensured they have their land and related family documents ready in case there is a requirement.

Migrants say that they receive calls from politically affiliated locals or local elected members in their home states asking them to return and vote during various types of elections.

Mohammed Tafajul Hoque, a migrant from Assam’s Morigaon, helps with migrant outreach at the Perumbavoor based Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), a non profit. A graduate, Hoque has advanced his plan to return home by a month to coincide with the voting schedule. This is the first time he will be travelling back home to vote.

“Some people were told that their names would be cut from electoral rolls or ration cards [cancelled] if they did not vote. I have informed them that it is false,” said Hoque, an Assamese- speaking Muslim. “But there is concern about NRC, particularly among Bengali-speaking people there.”

IndiaSpend wrote to Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar and forwarded the request to B. Narayanan, Director General (Media and Communication), ECI for comments on remote voting and RVM prototype, its progress, data and challenges of mapping seasonal migrant workers, and response of political parties on remote voting and other alternatives. Narayanan responded saying the ECI had no comment.

Need for data and political will, say experts

In November 2015, TISS Mumbai submitted a report on domestic migration and issues the migrants face in electoral participation to the ECI. The report said that the Union government and ECI need to “urgently generate reliable data on the numerous barriers/obstacles/disincentives internal/domestic migrants face in accessing voting rights away from their place of residence”.

It also said that a national consultation with political parties was needed to consider amending Section 20(A) of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act of 2010 to remove an “unreasonable restriction imposed by requiring internal/domestic migrants/ electors to be physically present in their constituencies to cast their votes”.

The TISS report has suggested that the ECI and political parties may consider treating “ordinarily resident”, mentioned in the Representation of the People Act 1951, as a multi-local identity for domestic/internal migrants to register as a voter. This will help migrants vote from a location that they are not ordinarily a resident of. Currently, exemptions for outside constituencies through postal ballots facility are for only service voters, special office holders, persons on election duty, and those in preventive detention.

The commission formed a “Committee of Officers On Domestic Migrants” which relied on the TISS report and discussion with parties and experts. Although internet voting, proxy voting, postal ballots and early voting for migrants were considered, it was not recommended.

The commission recommended the creation of a “robust electoral roll so that there is only one registration per voter, developing requisite technology for two-way electronically transmitted postal ballot in [a] controlled environment”. Remote voting would entail pre-registration, verification at home constituencies, and setting up of special multi-constituency remote voting polling booths.

Social scientist Ashwani Kumar, who is also the lead author of the 2015 TISS report, said that although ECI had prepared a prototype for remote voting in January 2023, all major parties backed out.

“Empowering domestic migrants with voting is a paradigm shift,” he said. “Considering the number of missing voters, letting migrants vote [remotely at destinations] can substantially alter electoral outcomes nationally and regionally. The missing voter is a huge democratic deficit.”

The ECI also noted that there is no central database for migration, and internal migration did not “form a uniquely identifiable and countable class” due to varying definitions. One of the issues flagged for January 2023 consultation by the ECI was how to define and identify domestic migrants, and if remote voting can be extended as an optional facility based on application before elections.

Of the 450 million internal migrants in India, 12% (54 million) were interstate migrants, according to the 2011 Census. But the estimates of temporary workers vary, and are not captured by the census. The Economic Survey of India 2016-17 said that annual work-related migration was 9 million people, based on railway passenger traffic data.

According to India Employment Report 2024 by the Institute for Human Development and International Labour Organization, India is expected to have a migration rate of around 40% in 2030 and will have an urban population of around 607 million. “The bulk of this increase in urban growth will come from migration,” said the report.

In April 2021, the labour ministry had announced five all India surveys including one on migrant workers. “Estimates of temporary labour migration in the country vary from 15 million to 100 million migrant workers, a variance that indicates the ambiguity of the phenomenon,” noted a 2020 International Labour Organisation policy document.

Lack of adequate and comprehensive data on migration was exposed immediately after the lockdown-related migrant distress in the Covid years. A day before the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, the government told Parliament that "it is not feasible to keep record/data of migrant labour workforce" because migrant workers tend to move often in search of employment, IndiaSpend had reported in March 2021.

“Census does not inform us about seasonal and circular migrants. They are not part of the census,” said Benoy Peter, executive director of CMID. “The absence of data is convenient to avoid accountability.”

The ECI has limited resources to conduct a national survey on domestic migrant voters and it is unlikely that such a survey will be undertaken in the next two decades, said Kumar. “Domestic migrant voter surveys will not provide any electoral benefits to parties compared to a caste census. This is a democratic paradox leading to democratic deficit. Although in Parliament we do not hear a discussion on this, [let’s] give credit to ECI that it has flagged the issue of missing voters and migrants.”

Migrant women will be impacted

Marriage is the biggest reason for migration of women, and nearly 97% of married people who said it was the reason for migration were women, according to Census 2011 data. Khalida Begum and Punka Bibi moved to Kerala from Nagaon and Murshidabad, respectively, after marriage.

When asked about remote voting, Punka was unclear about how her vote would reflect in Murshidabad if it was made in Ernakulam. But after clarifying, she felt that if there was a mechanism for casting her vote in Ernakulam instead of having to travel home, it would be good.

Like her neighbour Sekh, she and her husband will not be voting. “I earn Rs 450 a day at a plywood factory, and do not want to make an expensive trip that would cost Rs 4,000 one way and take nearly three days.”

Khalida, who stopped working after the birth of her child, will not be returning either, because they have loans to repay. Her husband earns around Rs 25,000 a month as a driver. She too cited the expense and the problems of travelling great distances with a child as an impediment to vote.

When migrants are not able to vote, the biggest sufferers are women migrants, said Ashwani Kumar. “If people are empowered with voting rights, they also are empowered with welfare rights. So if women are not voting, they lack access to welfare rights,” he said.

What can be done

Over the years, ECI has provided special provisions for Kashmiri migrants, the Reang voters of Mizoram and the Talwara migrants of Jammu. Even in 2024, Kashmiri migrants have special provisions to cast votes from their place of residence, indicating efforts to widen the scope.

“There is a deficit of data. We need to improve data on migration,” said Bhagat.

On March 19, 2024, the Supreme Court said that about 80 million informal workers registered with eShram Portal without ration cards should be provided cards. eShram portal has registered 295 million unorganised workers. Nearly three in four workers registered on eShram work in agriculture, domestic and household work, and construction. Although it does not specifically reveal migrant status, many are likely to be migrant workers.

“I feel that the government should also check if they have voter identification. If not, cards should also be provided,” said Bhagat.

Peter felt that remote voting is relevant and feasible when compared to the option of migrant workers having to pay money to return home to only vote. He suggested that a pilot study could be done in migrant corridors, say Ganjam-Surat or Murshidabad-Ernakulam, and based on the response, it could be expanded.

But we need to know the proportion of migrants who are on electoral rolls where they wish to vote, and there has to be an official interest in receiving areas to include migrants on the electoral rolls and inform them better, he said.

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