Context: In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has made it possible for senior citizens above the age of 65 to vote by postal ballot.

More on the news:

  • Hitherto, this voting option was available only to disabled citizens and those above 80 years
    • However, it is being said that the postal ballots may not minimize the risk of infection and it may be better instead to provide separate voting booths for senior citizens.
  • It is needed that well-thought-out initiatives that facilitate voting and remove obstacles to voters exercising their franchise must be welcomed. 
  • In this context, the same empowering approach also needs to be extended to migrant workers, which faces enormous difficulties in exercising its franchise.

Vulnerability of migrants:

  • Internal migrant workers constitute about 13.9 crore as in the Economic Survey of 2017, that is roughly a third of India’s labour force.
  • Impact of COVID-19
    • The COVID-19 cataclysm and the subsequent national lockdown brought to centre stage the magnitude of internal migration and hardships that migrant workers endure in their quest for livelihoods. 
    • The stark indignity that many of them endured on their long march home suggests that they are perceived as being politically powerless.
  • Nature of migration:
    • Migrant workers travel across India in search of an economic livelihood, in the construction sector, as domestic work, in brick kilns, mines, transportation, security, agriculture, etc. 
    • Many never intend to settle down and wish to return to their native villages and towns once their work is completed or the working season ends. 
  • Exploitive work conditions
    • Migrant workers often toil in exploitative low-wage jobs, lacking identity and proper living conditions and without access to welfare 
  • Non-exercise of voting rights
    • Migrant workers become quasi-disenfranchised, forgotten voters because they cannot afford to return home on election day to choose their representatives. 
    • The callous attitude toward the plight of migrants exhibited by some State governments leads to the conclusion that this group does not constitute a vote bank worthy of attention.
    • No identity proofs at the place of employment
      • Internal migrant workers do not enrol as voters in their place of employment since they find proof of residence hard to provide. 
      • Many are also seasonal migrants who would rather vote in their villages if they could afford to return home. 
      • Since they do not have a vote where they work, their concerns are easy to ignore in their host State. Sometimes, they are targeted for allegedly taking jobs away from the local population.

Way ahead

  • Focusing attention on who want to vote but are unable to do so:
    • Ensuring that every Indian who is eligible to vote can do so must be a central mission for the ECI. 
    • It is a matter of pride that India currently has over 91.05 crore registered voters and in the 2019 general election, a record 67.4%, i.e., 61.36 crore voters, cast their vote.
      • The ECI should also do well to focus attention on the one-third, a substantial 29.68 crore, who did not cast their vote
    • National Election Study surveys have shown that about 10% of registered voters refrain from voting due to a lack of interest in politics. 
      • These surveys leave approximately 20 crore voters who want to vote but are unable to do so.
  • Need of proxy voting similar to  NRIs
    • Of these 20 crore voters, there are about three crore Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). 
    • Only about one lakh NRIs have registered to vote, presumably because voting requires their physical presence in India. Of them, about 25,000 voted in the 2019 elections. 
    • To enable NRIs to exercise their franchise, the government brought in legislation in the previous Lok Sabha to enable voting through authorised proxies
    • While the legislation lapsed, it is interesting to contrast the concern for NRIs with the lack thereof for poor migrant workers.
  • Adopting a new model
    • Blend of existing models of voter portability and new innovations needs to be adopted
      • Currently, Service voters (government employees) posted away from home can vote through the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS).
      • On the other hand, classified service voters (e.g., military personnel) can do so through their proxies.
    • Aadhaar-linked voter-ID based solution
      • The ECI has said that it is testing an Aadhaar-linked voter-ID based solution to enable electors to cast their votes digitally from anywhere in the country. 
      • While developing this solution, we need to ensure that the linkage with Aadhaar does not result in the exclusion of eligible individuals.
  • Outreach measures and removing procedural hurdles
    • To facilitate voting by migrant workers, the ECI could undertake substantial outreach measures using the network of District Collectorates. 
    • Migrants should be able to physically vote in their city of work based on the address on their existing voter IDs and duration of their temporary stay. 
    • Also, it seems technologically feasible to record and transfer votes to their respective constituencies without compromising on the credibility of the election process.
  • One Nation One Voter ID
    • On the lines of ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ the ‘One Nation One Voter ID’ can be arranged to ensure native ballot portability and empower the forgotten migrant voter.
    • Once migrant workers get to exercise their franchise, we expect that we will see a change in how they are treated.

A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson goes: “We... do not have government by the majority. We have a government by the majority who participate.” Ensuring that every Indian voter can participate in elections is imperative to ensure a democratically inclusive India.