Time to make migrant workers’ concerns an electoral problem: analysis
Since the announcement of the blockade of coronavirus disease (Covid-19), large numbers of migrant workers have left their workplaces for their homes. There is no official count on the number, but estimates suggest it could be around half a million. According to parliamentary records, India has around 100 million migrant workers. How could an executive decision, so broad in its repercussions, not account for such a large number of its own citizens?
It may have answers in our political discourse, especially the place of migrants in it. Because they are on the move, they are never treated as a “voting bank.” It is now a pejorative reference to a captive electorate that historically votes en masse, generally linked to loyalty to its caste (or class in the West), religion, and color. Antithesis of that group are the “undecided voters”, who do not show such loyalty, are difficult to court and difficult to maintain, but ultimately decide the outcome of the election.
Indian migrant workers are neither a voting bank nor a deciding vote; Most of the time, they do not cast a vote. That exacerbates their vulnerabilities rather than factors such as earnings in which they greatly outperform their peers in the village. The Peoples Representation Act of 1951 requires the casting of votes at the place of registration. However, a vote can be transferred, but the process is not that simple. By the time the paperwork is complete, or the next election arrives, the migrant may have moved to another city in search of the next opportunity. In cities like Mumbai, the prevailing nativist agenda discourages migrants from registering or transferring their votes to the megacity. Political leaders do not adapt their agendas to address the concerns of migrant workers. Even major parties like the Bhartiya Janata Party or Congress did not include the migrant’s right to vote as an agenda in their manifesto for the last general election.
The Interstate Migrant Workers Act of 1979, which aimed to protect the interests of migrant workers, served its cause well during its first decade of operation. But in 1990-91, when India faced its biggest economic crises before Covid-19, labor laws were diluted significantly to allow rapid industrialization. Union politics that until now had led to successful politicians, George Fernandes, for example, was forced to find other offers. The Indian Employee Provident Fund has only 45 million active users in public and private establishments. Despite the 1979 law requiring the creation of a central registry of migrant workers, the Union labor minister told Parliament a year ago that the government does not maintain such a database.
The freedom to move freely, live and settle anywhere in India is guaranteed as a fundamental right under article 19 of the Constitution. The interstate movement of the workforce is not only the lifeline of India’s famous demographic dividend, but also a dividend of federalism in which state governments compete with each other on socio-economic policies to attract a more skilled workforce.
In the now legendary Indira Gandhi v / s Raj Narain case, Supreme Court Justice HR Khanna had opined that free and fair elections are an essential element of a democracy, with successive trials emphasizing that principle. But, how free is an election that effectively deprives almost 8% of its population for the simple fault of exercising their fundamental right to migrate within the country?
A 2015 Tata Institute for Social Sciences report correlated that states with higher migration rates are associated with lower voter participation. In order to facilitate the electoral participation of migrant workers, the report called for a national consultation on early voting, mail voting, proxy voting and electronic voting, early voting and alternative voting systems widely used in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Palagummi Sainath, founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India, suggested that, to include the votes of migrants, elections should be scheduled with the harvest season. It has precedence. The Indian Electoral Commission has in the past made successful voting arrangements for Kashmiri migrants, Talmura immigrants from Jammu and Reangs from Mizoram.
Nothing can justify excluding the tens of millions of our own citizens from India’s political bargaining. Migrants must fight to carry their votes wherever they go, and we, in solidarity, must corner those rights.
Kabeer Shrivastava is a lawyer, Delhi High Court
The opinions expressed are personal.