Migrants Lives Matter: Open Letter to the Election Commission

India cannot look itself in the eye and explain how such a large section of its population—simply by virtue of its work definition which is being away from home – is excluded from the basic constitutional right to cast their votes.

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“The Assembly has adopted the principle of adult franchise with abundant faith in the common man and the ultimate success of democratic rule, and in the full belief that the introduction of democratic government on the basis of adult suffrage will bring enlightenment and promote the well-being, the standard of life, the comfort, and the decent living of the common man” –Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar
While the United State of America granted universal adult franchise incrementally, India, moved from a restrictive 15 percent of Indians having (limited) voting rights to universal adult franchise, driven by the transformative impetus of the national movement and the ideals of equality and non-discrimination that it threw up.
When it came to voting rights, it was Dr. BR Ambedkar’s clarity of vision that resulted in Article 326 of the Indian Constitution which not only provided that elections would be held on the basis of the universal adult franchise but ensured that elitist notions of qualifications did not exclude individuals from either voting or standing for elections, such as property qualifications.
Ambedkar had influenced public opinion on the matter for decades, giving evidence before the Southborough committee in 1919. [The Committee was recording evidence on designing representative institutions for what was then the Indian Dominion]. Ambedkar emphasized that, ultimately, democratic government was inseparable from the right to vote, and it was voting that would prove to be (one of) the harbinger(s) of political education.
21st Century India, especially post COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown India needs well to recall this rich history. It is the will of all the Indian people getting reflected in policy and the choices of parties of governance through the ballot that epitomizes the very foundations of representative democracy. With all attendant ills of unchecked money power in politics, class, caste and community interests overshadowing a modern and truly transparent electoral process today, India cannot look itself in the eye and explain how such a large section of its population—simply by virtue of its work definition which is being away from home – is excluded from this basic constitutional right.
India’s gaze has, for the first time, been turned towards the “Migrant Labourer”. For Indian democracy to learn the right lessons from the plight that a sudden lockdown caused this vast section of Indians, a condition that has been brought before the more settled and privileged sections, including politicians, one crucial element must surely be to secure them the right and facility to vote. To elect, to State Assemblies and National Parliament, parties that they believe to be in their best interest, able and prepared to ensure transformative social change.
Let’s take this further. The Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of movement to every citizen and to reside in any part of the country; allowing internal migration inter-se the states in search of better work and opportunities. According to the latest 2011 census, the number of internal migrants stands at 450 million (45 crores), a 45% surge from the earlier census of 2001. Among these, 26% of the migration, i.e., 117 million (11.7 crores), occurs inter-district within the same state while 12% of the migration, i.e., 54 million (5.4 crores), occurs inter-state. Both official and independent experts admit that this number is underestimated. Circular migration accounts for those migrants that 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 (6-6.5 crores), which including family members could approach 100 million itself (10 crores). Half of these are inter-state migrants.
Studies also reveal that migrant labourers are among the most vulnerable sections of Indians, hailing from most poverty-driven rural areas and from among the most marginalized sections (SC/STs and OBCs, and Other Minorities, including Muslims), often uneducated, lacking in assets and land ownership. As of 2011, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were the largest sources of inter-state migrants, with 83 lakhs and 63 lakhs migrants respectively, while Maharashtra and Delhi the largest receiver states. Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Orissa have joined these ranks. In their host cities, migrant labourers work primarily in informal sectors.
Most migrant voters have voter cards for their home constituency. A 2012 study showed that 78% of migrant labourers surveyed possessed voter ID cards and names present on voting lists of their home cities. Economic constraints disable a majority of migrant labourers to exercise their franchise as they cannot, in the midst of harsh work cycles, commute to their home states in the one-day declared for Parliamentary elections per constituency.  One survey shows that only 48% of those surveyed voted in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when the national average was 59.7%. Only 31% of those surveyed voted in that election. These patterns have stayed consistent: in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, major sender states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh had among lowest voter turnout rates at 57.33% and 59.21% respectively (when the national average was 67.4%).
Additionally, given the nature of migration being circular and seasonal, migrants are not permanent/long-term residents in host cities and do not satisfy the requirements of being an “ordinary resident” under Section 20 of the Representation of People Act, (RP Act), in the host state, to obtain voter cards. They are, therefore, unable to transfer their constituency. Only 10% of migrant labourers surveyed possessed voter IDs in their host cities.
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 (“ISMW”) was passed to ensure guarantees against the exploitation of migrant labourers. This law requires the Centre (and States) to maintain updated records of such work. This data needs to be accurately maintained and sourced by the Election Commission of India (ECI).
The ECI, a constitutional authority under Article 324 of the Constitution has under Section 60(c) of the RP Act, the power to notify a certain class of persons to vote via postal ballot. The ECI’s much-proclaimed mission to ensure that “no voters are left behind” has resulted in attempts to ensure a secure system of postal ballots. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, more than 28 Lakhs votes were received via postal ballots.  The Indian migrant worker deserves the secured right to have access to vote through a similar system.
The Supreme Court too has interpreted the right to vote, the final stage of the exercise of voting right as an extension of the fundamental right of the freedom of expression, Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. This brings with it a positive obligation on the ECI to ensure optimal conditions for the exercise of this freedom. Ensuring this fundamental freedom to the Indian migrant worker, regardless of caste, gender, creed, ethnicity or faith, therefore is a constitutional obligation on the ECI.
Arguably, this failure to ensure that this “class of Indians’ are legitimately allowed to exercise their franchise has meant that their security, dignity, and overall well being has been invisibilized from the entire political discourse of the country, be it of the ruling party or the opposition.
Ambedkar’s prescience on right to vote for “Untouchables” bears note. He had observed that “the right of representation and the right to hold office under the State are the two most important rights that makeup citizenship”. India would do well to extend this vision to a long invisibilized section of Indians to ensure that they, too, are educated into political life.
Let Migrant Lives Really Matter.

The writer is secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace. She received research assistance from Sanchita Kadam, Radhika Goyal, and Sharvari Kothawade, all lawyers. The subject matter of the article was part of a collective memorandum submitted to the ECI by Citizens for Justice and Peace (cjp.org.in) on July 10, 2019, which has been co-signed by the Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Odisha, the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP), Bangla Sanskriti Mancha and Bharatiya Nagarik Adhikar Suraksha Manch, Assam.

Read about: Life of Bengali Migrants in Bangalore Slums

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