Over 300 million Indians couldn’t vote in this election, they won’t be able to in 2024 either

In February, the Indian government’s push for the passage of a key bill allowing proxy voting rights for India’s 25 million-strong diaspora — also known as non-resident Indians or NRIs — has shone the spotlight on millions of migrant workers within India who remain removed from the voting process.

Migrant Workers
In the 2014 elections, there were 834 million registered voters out of which 280 million people did not vote. That’s roughly the entire population of Indonesia.
This time, there were 900 million eligible voters and voter turnout was still abysmal. While some chose not to vote, there were many who could not vote because they were not present in their registered constituency.
Why does the world’s largest democracy lag behind in voter participation?
According to an analysis by Business Standard, the global median of voter turnout stands at 68.03 per cent from 184 elections held across the globe, while India had recorded about 66.4 per cent in the 2014 general elections.
So what stops an Indian voter from voting?
Understanding absentee ballots
Absentee ballots are the vote cast by someone who is unable to go to the polling station. The system is designed to increase voter turnout.
In some countries, the voter is required to give a reason for not going to the polling station, before participating in an absentee ballot.
In India, a postal ballot is available to only some citizens. The Representation of the People Act, 1950 allows heads of states and those serving in the armed forces to vote through postal means.
The Lok Sabha recently passed a Bill to allow proxy voting for NRIs. However, domestic migrants and absentee voters in India cannot cast postal votes.
Internal Migration
With over 300 million migrants, India has the world’s largest migrant population. A significant number of these migrants are seasonal and temporary migrants. In fact, the key characteristic of out-migration from India is semi-permanence wherein migrants move back and forth between their home and destination regions throughout their working lives, a report by Firstpost said.
Section 20 of the Representation of the People Act says a person can be registered as a voter in any constituency where s/he is “ordinarily resident”.
However, most Indian migrants are seasonal and temporary migrants for whom enrolling at a destination is not an attractive option as they return home often. At the same time, the cost they incur while travelling to their registered constituencies is too high and thus miss out on voting in their home regions altogether. At destinations, the process of enrolment in a new constituency requires adequate proof of new residence, which is rarely possible given the informal nature of migrant housing, the report said.
Studies have found that states with higher rates of migration are associated with lower voter turnouts.
For many of the urban poor, the act of enrolment itself is a difficult endeavour given the casual nature and piece-rate daily wage nature of the work they do. In fact, poor urban migrants have the lowest recorded voter turnouts.
Indian migrants are only going to increase in numbers, as India moves towards middle-income status, they will also increasingly come from minority and disfranchised backgrounds and their destinations both within and abroad are going to diversify. We already see a significant increase in migration to South India from the North and North Eastern states and both regional and national political parties are taking notice, the report said.
“According to the 2011 Census, 51 million migrants moved within India for economic reasons, constituting nearly 10% of the labour force. This gives rise to a concern about the political voicelessness of these migrant workers who are unable to practise their voting rights because of economic migration. There are no statistics available on how many migrant workers have changed their constituency to vote at their current work location. Yet, it is intuitively understandable that economic realities—such as daily wage-based work arrangements, and the time and cost of travel to their domicile—will exclude them from the participatory process of voting, which is their constitutional right,” EPW reported.
Though the freedom of movement is a constitutional right of all Indian citizens, for the migrant workers, the very nature of their work disrupts the execution of this right by trapping them in their destinations of work. The main issue faced by workers is the economic strain of quitting even a day’s work to go back to their hometown and vote, the report said.
Besides sending remittances, there is also the pressure of expectations from family and peers that the migrants will bring back gifts from the cities during their home visits. While such gifts are signs of prestige to the families, to the migrant worker these are economic dampeners of their decision to travel to their home constituencies for voting, the report added.
In February, the Indian government’s push for the passage of a key bill allowing proxy voting rights for India’s 25 million-strong diaspora — also known as non-resident Indians or NRIs — has shone the spotlight on millions of migrant workers within India who remain removed from the voting process.
Proxy voting rights will allow India’s overseas demographic to vote from the country where they are currently based, a privilege that still remains elusive to internal migrants.
Civil rights groups feel that domestic migrants, who are direct stakeholders in the country’s future, deserve attention over the privileged NRIs, who have a lesser stake in India’s good governance and are only at best only fringe beneficiaries of its policies.
A 2011 study on the political inclusion of seasonal migrant workers by Amrita Sharma and her co-authors found that 22 per cent of seasonal migrant workers in India did not possess voter IDs or have their names registered in the voter list. The study noted that “many migrants leave their home at an age as early as 13-14. The voter ID is issued at an age of 18 or more. When they become eligible to get a voter ID, their work life is at its peak and their trips to home short in duration.”
Many migrants are reported to not have the time to get their voter IDs made and a staggering 83 per cent of long-distance migrants reported missing voting in elections at least once because they were away from home seeking better livelihood opportunities. Because of this, migrant workers are often left unable to make political demands for entitlements or seek reforms, states the report.
Internal migration — an exponentially growing phenomenon — shapes the economic, social, and political contours of India’s 29 states. Studies suggest that roughly 25 per cent to 30 per cent of Indians are internal migrants who have moved across the district or state lines, a staggering number for a country with a population that tops 1.3 billion, The Diplomat reported.
“According to Ravi Srivastava, an economist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, as many as three out of every 10 Indians have moved away from their homes, usually in search of a better job. That’s why many have called for absentee voting to become available to all of India’s 814 million-strong electorate,” The Diplomat reported.
“Internal migrants in India largely comprise married women moving to their new marital homes in different cities or villagers relocating to urban areas for better economic opportunities due to growing distress in the farm sector. A sizeable portion of these migrants are contract workers who have no job security and are usually far removed from the government’s social and structural framework. They also cannot access social welfare benefits either in their homes or in their current places of residence,” the report stated.
Election Commission expressed its difficulty in tracking the movement of such migrants and the inability to extend alternative voting rights to domestic migrants on the lines of overseas Indians, the report said.
Those who can’t vote have the most to lose
“The Election Commission of India (ECI) has in the past made efforts to increase voter participation of internal migrants, but only in exceptional cases. In 1996, 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the ECI introduced postal ballots for Kashmiris staying in transit camps for an indefinite period. The ECI also made special provisions for communities displaced due to violent conflicts — Reang voters in Mizoram in 1999, and Jammu’s Talwara migrants in 2014 (although no arrangements were reportedly made in 2019 polls). Thus, the response of the ECI to political participation of internal migrants is highly selective,” a report in The Print said.
“Moreover, women comprise the largest group of internal migrants, although they migrate mostly after marriage, as noted in multiple academic and news reports. In other words, internal migrants come from a population that is expected to receive huge benefits from good governance. When this group does not vote, it stands to lose the most,” the report said.
“The internal migrants continue to be forgotten during the biggest democratic exercise — of electing their representative. Although merely being able to vote is not the cure — the interface between voters and their elected representatives continues to be poor — it is the fundamental claim to citizenship that eludes internal migrants,” the report said.
Watchdog organisations have said that around 120 million voters appear to be missing from the electoral rolls in India. They accused some politicians of deliberately leaving out their rival parties’ supporters.
Furthermore, for many states, such as Uttar Pradesh, the question is also one of the disenfranchisements of minorities given the large proportions of their Muslim and Dalit migrant populations.
Around 125,000 “D” or “Doubtful” voters in Assam were deemed ineligible to vote by the authorities, who say they were not provided with sufficient evidence of their Indian citizenship. These people have been accused of being undocumented immigrants from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh, a long-running issue in the state.
Khalid Saifullah, founder of the Hyderabad-based initiative ‘Missing Voters’, told Al Jazeera that around 65 million of these missing voters are women.
Among the 120 million people Missing Voters suggests are not included on the rolls, Saifullah further estimates that around 40 million of them are Muslims while 30 million are Dalits.
Saifullah’s estimates are based on discrepancies he says he found between the number of single households in census data and the election commission’s data. The numbers include those who may not have registered to vote in addition to the names that may have been deleted.
The Election Commission of India denied reports that a large number of voters was missing from the rolls.
After advocating proxy voting for NRIs, ruling BJP objected to giving such a right to domestic migrants. In an all-party meeting called by the Election Commission in 2018, BJP had said while “genuine domestic migrant voters should be identified” through a proper process, “no proxy or absentee mode be adopted and therefore in the garb of migrant voters no bogus voting should be permitted”.
Internal migrants and the disenfranchised voters could not exercise their rights in 2014 or 2019. The picture looks bleak for 2024 as well.



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