Labourers at Rajpath in New Delhi

Who cares about the MRIs: How migrant workers leave behind their right to vote

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]BLIVIOUS to the hype and hoopla surrounding the ‘biggest festival of democracy’, Mukhia—a cycle-rickshaw puller—seems lost in his own world.  As he awaits a commuter outside the Mayur Vihar Metro Station, Phase I, New Delhi, he pulls out a packet, probably of weed, from his pant pocket and thrusts it back within no time. From the other pocket, he fishes out a sack of tobacco. Before placing it between his lower lip and tooth, he rubs a pinch of the substance with his thumb on his palm. He then wipes his face with his sweat-soaked shirt and throws it on his right shoulder as the streetlight shines on his pale and haggard face.

“Whosoever comes to power, our condition is not going to change,” he says, replying to a question on what he feels about the ensuing parliamentary elections.

While pedalling the rickshaw with his entire body force, he opens up and speaks about his existential challenges: “The battery-operated rickshaws are posing a major challenge to our business. Even after working for 12-15 hours, a cycle rickshaw-waala can’t save much. At the end of the day, we have to pay rent for the rickshaw to the vehicle owner.”

Though he claims to be 45, he looks much older. He sleeps in a rickshaw garage whereas his family lives in Bisakhtanga village in Mandar block, Ranchi.“Farming is no longer profitable. So I had to leave home about seven years ago. But I never got registered as a voter here as it would have cost me daily wages,” he continues, adding that “I visit home once a year, only when there is some exigency.”

There are millions of faceless migrant workers like Mukhia who live a dark and dingy life in the otherwise glittering cities of the country to earn a living and support their families back home. When they migrate to work in urban areas, they don’t just leave behind their homes and families but also their right to vote.


The anonymity of an informal economy


In the cities, they get drowned in the anonymity of the informal economy while working as domestic helps, factory workers, construction labourers, vendors or doing scores of other menial jobs. Even after working for long hours, they struggle to make both ends meet. Taking a break from routine work is difficult for them even when they fall ill.

The population of migrant workers has increased exponentially over the past three decades, according to social scientists. Being invisible for the political parties, this unorganised sector workforce remains starkly under-represented in Indian politics.



“Every political party raves and rants about farmers and poor workers during election rallies. But once the polls are over, they just forget us,” says a private security guard on duty, outside the office of a national English daily at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.


Women carrying bricks on their head | Photo Credit: Naresh Bhagat


He is a retired BSF soldier and doesn’t want to be quoted. “The Prime Minister calls himself ‘Chowkidaar’ but what has he done for us who are ruthlessly exploited in the cities? Our employers promise a monthly salary of Rs 20,000 on paper but give us only Rs 15,000 in reality. We work for more than 12 hours a day without any holidays.”

Listing out the problems he encounters on a daily basis, he asks, “Political parties don’t talk about our issues. When we don’t exist for them, why should we vote after risking our job and wages?”


Who cares about the MRIs


Going by estimates, around 400 million “Migratory Resident Indians (MRIs)” who are eligible voters — a majority of them unskilled and semi- skilled workers—remain non-existent when it comes to exercising their franchise in general elections or even state Assembly polls, according to researchers at the Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions at Aajeevika Bureau, a specialised non-profit initiative that provides services, support and security to rural and seasonal migrant workers.

The total number of non-voting MRIs in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, according to the observers, was higher than the number of votes polled by the BJP and the Congress put together.



“A large constituency of migrant workers—who are largely uneducated—engaged in the informal economic sector remains totally out of the imagination of our political class and the people contesting parliamentary elections. This leads to indifference among migrant voters,” Director Aajeevika Bureau, Amrita Sharma opines. Asserting that their “political exclusion is structural in nature”, she feels that “we have been neglecting our villages and agriculture so that labour is made available cheap to the industry and the cities. Their economic disempowerment has led to their political exclusion.”

“If you look at farmers, they still have an identity. Their issues are always evocative for the middle class as their food comes from them, but migrant labour lack a singular identity as they are engaged in hundreds of occupations. Since they are highly heterogeneous, fractured, dispersed and a mobile community, they don’t have any representation or political voice. Above all, there is no political initiative to bring their voice to a common platform.”



Referring to a study undertaken by her organisation a few years ago, she says, “A majority of migrant labourers leave their homes at the age of 13-14 years. Getting a voter ID card becomes very difficult for them at 18. Their livelihood concerns never allow them to take off from work to chase the EPICs (electors photo identity cards) and get their names registered on electoral rolls.”

To get registered as a voter, a migrant worker is required to file application form No. 6 with the electoral registration office in the constituency of his new residence. The application can also be submitted online. The entire registration process takes five to seven weeks.


Panchayat vs state and general elections


She, however, claims that their participation in panchayat elections is always higher when compared to state Assembly and Lok Sabha polls. “Since panchayat elections see a very close fight, the candidates always arrange their travel back home or lure them in different ways to ensure their participation. And for the migrant labourers, the stakes are always high in the local bodies’ elections. They can approach a sarpanch to get their grievances at the village level redressed. But it’s highly unlikely for them to approach a parliamentarian or an MLA.”


Photo Credit: Vipin


“During the Gujarat Assembly elections, we found the same phenomenon at the intra-state level. Those labourers from the Adivasi belt of the state working in Ahmedabad were not able to exercise their franchise due to fear of job loss or loss of wages, which are very critical for their survival. After we along with some organisations carried out a demonstration, stressing on political inclusion of the migrant workers, the State Election Commission did respond and put up posters and advertisements, asking migrant workers to go back and vote besides setting up helpline numbers. But that wasn’t enough,” she recalls, stressing that there is need for a creative mechanism to make sure that migrant workers participate in Parliamentary elections.



“Those who monitor the work of Election Commission of India (ECI) feel that it is going to be a humongous exercise to include migrant workers in the Parliamentary polls. But it doesn’t mean that the ECI shouldn’t expand itself,”says Sharma.

The general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, Amarjeet Kaur, expresses her concern.“It’s not good for Indian democracy if such a big chunk of the population doesn’t participate in Parliamentary polls. Some method has to be evolved by the ECI.”


NRI Power: Postal and proxy voting


While a voter exercises franchise by personally visiting the polling booth, there are two more options: postal ballots and proxy voting.

The postal ballots option is reserved for government and armed forces personnel. Under this provision, a voter exercises their franchise through post, which is available only for people on election duty, armed forces personnel, and electors subject to preventive detention.

Similarly, the option of proxy voting is available only for armed forces, police, and government officials posted outside India. A voter can authorise another residing in the same polling booth area to cast a vote on their behalf.



The ECI had permitted armed forces personnel to exercise their right to franchise at their place of posting like ordinary residents of that constituency in 2014.

The government’s proposal to amend Representation of the People Act “to enable overseas electors to appoint a proxy to cast the vote in an election” had come under scathing criticism last year. After an expert committee of the ECI approved proxy voting, the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill 2017 was passed in the Lok Sabha during the monsoon session but did not see the light of day in the Rajya Sabha and hence lapsed.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the amending law noted: “This would considerably mitigate the difficulties presently faced by overseas electors in exercising their franchise.”

“If they are thinking about giving facilities to NRIs and OCIs, why can’t migrant workers be given the same facility?” argues Kaur, adding that “it’s the responsibility of the state apparatus to provide them opportunity to exercise their right to franchise.”


Photo Credit: Vipin


Jagdeep S. Chhokar, former professor, dean and director in-charge, IIM, Ahmedabad, and founder-member of the Association for Democratic Reforms, also cites economic reasons for official disdain towards migrant workers. “The government’s concern for overseas electors is fine but what’s shocking is its apathy towards a much larger group of citizens who live right here on Indian soil,” he says. “The reason is not hard to guess: NRIs have money and are organised and influential. But the MRIs are mostly poor, scattered and not an organised vote-bank.”

The work on amending the law started in 2010, following demands from various sections of NRIs, he says, adding that at least three PILs were subsequently filed in the Supreme Court (in 2010, 2013 and 2014) asking for judicial intervention. “The ECI set up a committee to examine the issue and make recommendations on the directions of the top court. This committee submitted a 104-page report in October 2014, recommending e-postal ballot, and voting through proxy,” he further says.



“The NRIs were able to get this done because of the resources at their disposal and their influence. Clearly, 400 million domestic migrants who toil for their daily bread can’t do this,” he adds, emphasising on the need for finding and facilitating means to make migrant workers exercise franchise.

Calling for their democratic inclusion, Chhokar feels that the Indian polity should heed the advice of Father of the Nation. He quotes one of the last notes Mahatma Gandhi left behind in 1948, expressing his deepest social thought, “…recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything from it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?”


[Leading image credits: Vipin]