Context: Though India moved from a restrictive 15 percent (pre-independence) of Indians having voting rights to universal adult franchise (post-independence), a majority of migrants are still excluded from this basic constitutional right.
- Southborough committee: It was recording evidence on designing representative institutions for the Indian Dominion in 1919.
- Ambedkar, while recording his statement in front of the committee emphasised that a democratic government was inseparable from the right to vote, and it was voting that would prove to be one of the harbinger of political education.
- Legacy of freedom struggle: Universal adult franchise was driven by the transformative impetus of the national movement and the ideals of equality and non-discrimination.
- Article 326: When it came to voting rights, B R Ambedkar held that Article 326 not only provided elections on the basis of universal adult franchise, but ensured that elitist notions of qualifications (such as property ownership), did not exclude individuals from either voting or standing for elections.
- Non transparent electoral process: Unchecked money power in politics, class, caste and community interests are overshadowing a modern and truly transparent electoral process.
- Missing voters: India cannot explain how such a large section of its population - migrant labourers - have been excluded from the electoral process simply by virtue of its work definition.
- Hardships due to the pandemic: The plight of migrant labourers due to a sudden lockdown brought before the more settled and privileged sections, one crucial element - to secure to them the right and facility to vote.
Status of Internal migration in India:
- Under Article 19: The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of movement to every citizen and freedom to reside in any part of the country.
- According to the latest 2011 Census, the number of internal migrants stand at 450 million, a 45 per cent surge from the 2001 census.
- Among these, 26 percent of the migration occurs inter-district within the same state while 12 percent of the migration occurs inter-state. Both official and independent experts admit that this number is underestimated.
- Circular migration accounts for those migrants who have not permanently relocated to host cities, and instead circulate between host and home cities.
- For instance, short-term and circular migration could itself amount to 60-65 million migrants, of which half are inter-state migrants.
Socio-economic status of migrants:
- Most hail from poverty-driven rural areas and from among the most marginalised sections (SC/STs and OBCs, and other minorities, including Muslims).
- Mostly uneducated, and lack assets including land.
- Source regions: As of 2011, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were the largest source of inter-state migrants, with 83 lakh and 63 lakh migrants respectively.
- Voter ID: Most migrant voters have voter cards for their home constituency.
- A 2012 study showed that 78 percent of migrant labourers possessed voter ID cards and had names on voters lists in their home cities.
- Economic constraints disable a majority of them from voting as they cannot commute to their home states on the polling day, in the midst of harsh work cycles.
- One survey shows that only 48 percent of migrants voted in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the national average was 59.7 per cent. These patterns have stayed consistent.
- Nature of migration: Given the circular and seasonal migration, migrants are not permanent or long-term residents in host cities.
- Do not satisfy the requirements of an “ordinary resident” under Section 20 of the Representation of People Act, to obtain voter cards in the host state. This prevents them from transferring their constituency.
- Only 10 percent of migrant labourers surveyed possessed voter IDs in their host cities.
Ways to enfranchise these missing voters:
- Section 60(c) of the RP Act: The Election Commission of India has power to notify a certain class of persons to vote via postal ballot under this section.
- The will help ECI in ensuring its much-proclaimed mission “no voters are left behind”.
- In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, more than 28 lakh votes were received via postal ballots.
The Indian migrant worker deserves the secured right to have access to vote through a similar system.
- Voting is part of the right to freedom of expression: The Supreme Court has interpreted the right to vote as an extension of the fundamental right of the freedom of expression.
- This brings a positive constitutional obligation on the ECI to ensure optimal conditions for the exercise of this freedom to the Indian migrant worker, regardless of caste, gender, creed, ethnicity or faith.
- The failure to ensure voting rights to this class of Indians would make their security, dignity and overall well-being invisible from the political discourse of the country.
The post COVID-19 India needs to recall its rich history of adult franchise. It is the will of all the Indian people getting reflected in policy and the governance through the ballot that laid the very foundations of a representative democracy.
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