The Election Commission of India (ECI) is going to great lengths to ensure that Non-Resident Indians (NRI) are able to cast their votes by postal ballot. The Indian Express reported that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had asked the ECI to ensure that there was enough manpower at Indian embassies in other countries to facilitate postal ballot voting. It is proposed that NRIs in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Germany, France, and South Africa will be the first ones to get postal voting rights.
According to IE, in the meeting held last week with MEA, the ECI is learned to have proposed that a designated officer in the Indian mission download the ballot paper on the voter’s behalf and hand it over. The overseas elector can then mark her preference at the mission, get the self-declaration form attested by the designated officers and hand back the ballot paper and declaration form in a sealed envelope to the mission, which will then dispatch all the envelopes to the election officer concerned.
CJP had petitioned the ECI in July proposing postal ballot voting for migrants who are unable to exercise their right, for similar reasons as NRIs
The ECI has proposed that any NRI interested in voting through the postal ballot in an election will have to inform the Returning Officer (RO) at least five days after the notification of the election. On receiving such information, the RO will dispatch the ballot paper electronically.
This is the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) which is currently only available to defence personnel. The proposal for allowing NRIs to vote via ETPBS was sent by ECI to the Law Ministry, early in December. As per IE, the Commission told the government that it had received representations from the Indian diaspora about facilitating voting through postal votes since travelling to India for elections was a “costly affair”.
The ECI began considering NRI voting from overseas after it received several requests, including one from former Rajya Sabha MP and industrialist Naveen Jindal and the Ministry of Overseas Affairs, and after a few writ petitions filed in the Supreme Court. After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a committee was set up to explore options to facilitate voting for NRIs and even a bill was proposed to extend proxy voting to overseas Indians which lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.
According to a UN report of 2015, India’s diaspora population is the largest in the world at 16 million people.
Registration of NRI voters, in comparison, has been very low: a little over 1 lakh overseas Indians registered as voters in India, according to the EC.
In last year’s Lok Sabha elections, roughly 25,000 of them flew to India to vote.
In this pilot project which is supposed to cater NRI population a significant chunk of NRIs from Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are excluded. The EC and MEA have in the past expressed strong reservations over facilitating voting for Indian citizens living in non-democratic nations.
What about migrants?
While the ECI is ready to extend voting rights to Indians residing overseas under the rationale that traveling to India each time only for voting is a “costly affair”, it is forgetting the migrant labour population in its country. Even for the migrant labourer, traveling back to their constituency/state for casting their vote is a costly affair as they have meagre means of income and cannot possibly think of spending money to go to their native place only to exercise this democratic right.
In July this year, Citizens for Justice and Peace(CJP) started a campaign called ‘Let Migrants Vote’ and started an online petition for the same while also sending a memo to the ECI, the Law Ministry as well as all state governments in the country. In this petition, it was highlighted that the migrant labourers were deprived of their constitutional rights merely because of their work definition thus invisibilising them.
According to the latest census of 2011, 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. Yet, such a large chunk of the population is losing out on casting their votes, and they have the right on an equal footing as the NRIs, to cast their votes as well. Article 14 of the Constitution bestows equality before the law and equal protection of law. At least by this basic principle, the migrants need to be placed on the same pedestal as the NRIs are being put so that their votes also may be counted.
CJP’s petition may be read here.
The article was first published at sabrangindia.in