The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) held a webinar on Thursday bringing together activists and Human Rights groups to draw attention to migrant labourers’ right to vote and how it is often violated under the present system.
Speakers included three former Chief Election Commissioner Dr. SY Quraishi, Dr. Nasim Zaidi and OP Rawat, as well as CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad among others.
It is noteworthy that in July 2020, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and like minded organisations such as Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Bangla Sanskriti Manch, All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) and Bharatiya Nagrik Adhikar Suraksha Manch (BNASM), had come together to send a memorandum to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to make provisions for migrant workers to be able to vote via postal ballot. This move was necessitated in wake of the migrant workers crisis brought upon by the sudden declaration of a national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, we find it heartening to see that many more organisations and individuals are joining the chorus to demand voting rights for migrant workers.
The ADR webinar began with General Anil Verma comparing migrants to Non-Resident Indians (NRI) and coined an interesting term, Migrant Resident Indian (MRI) to underscore the discrimination faced by MRIs. General Verma said, “The government has shown veritable exuberance in providing NRIs the opportunity to vote. The government helps them connect with the Indian embassy in their respective nations and are provided with complex voting systems to ensure their vote is counted even though they are not in their home country. However, MRIs are not provided with such voting facilities even though the MRIs are greater in number than the NRIs.”
Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar, founder-member and trustee of ADR moderated the online event. He reminded everyone of privilege and how even though the NRIs are well off and are not in as much need as that of MRIs, the State prioritises their voting rights over that of the MRIs. He also qualified his speech and said that he does not want to say that one class deserves more voting rights than the other, everyone deserves it equally. “It is just heart-breaking to see the interests of affluent people being prioritised over the ones who are underprivileged,” said Chhokar. He also expressed his shock at the fact that even though it is the MRIs who sacrifice their tears, sweat and blood for our infrastructure and economy, they are not treated with equal respect and are in a sense disenfranchised from the system.
Interestingly, former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Dr. S.Y Qureshi argues that the MRIs “are not de-jure disenfranchised as they can register at their place of work.” He puts up an interesting proposition; one’s voting power tantamount to one’s political power. Upon this foundation, Quraishi talked about migrant workers, providing two sides of the issue, “It could be said that a migrant worker would want his political power to be at his village and not at his place of work, because why would he care about what is happening at his place of work?” Then he argued, “On the other hand, if the migrant workers are not given any political power at their place of work, they might get exploited in that region and the entire state machinery would a caste a blind eye towards them for if they are not voting for the government, why must it be accountable to them?” Through this premise Quraishi asserted that that it was crucial to help the migrant workers vote at their place of work.
OP Rawat (former CEC) opened with the claim that by the virtue of our Constitution, everyone above the age of eighteen not only deserves to vote, but also has a Constitutional right to do so. He then drew from his experience as a former CEC to explain the difficulties faced by the Election Commission in making it easier for migrants to vote. He explained, “Presently, there is no clear definition as of now to identify migrant labourers. It is extremely difficult for the EC to come up with schemes and the requisite technology to help MRIs vote as there is no clear, distinct identifiable class of people who could be termed as migrant workers.” He opined this is the first issue that needs to be rectified before the government creates a mechanism to let migrant workers vote.
He also urged the government to link Aadhaar to Voter ID to streamline the process of voter identification, as he feels this will greatly help in ensuring the safety of the ballot. He also asked, “Freedom to vote is a major concern in the cases of migrant workers as they are at mercy of their employers. If the job providers wield their authority and force them to vote for a certain party, who would be able to stop that?”
Another issue Mr Rawat identified is that the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) can only be applied in one state and since the MRI community are essentially present in two states at a time, political parties could give them freebies in the other state and make them vote for the party.
Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) professor Aswhani Kumar explained that “there is no de jure disenfranchisement per se, it merely a de facto disenfranchisement.” He claimed, “As a matter of fact, the EC has done its best in trying to help the migrant workers receive the right to vote. However, due to extenuating circumstances, it is difficult for them give the MRIs their right to vote in its truest sense.”
He also presented his study in the form of a PPT.
Rajiv Khandelwal (Executive Director of Aajeevika Bureau) then offered an insight into the lives of the MRIs and said that they don’t feel politically included or entitled. “This stems from the fact that since they are not organised or get to vote actively, they are not a political bloc or for that do not even have a political identity,” he explained. To illustrate, he gave the example of an incident of a truck running over 15 MRIs and not a single MLA or bureaucrat took the initiative to ensure they are bodies are taken back home safely to their loved ones. “This is the condition of their community because they are tacitly refused the right to vote,” he said. He also said that, MRIs would like to have vote at their home and at their place of work. Essentially what they truly need is the right to vote wherever they are. However, Khandelwal is against the idea of connecting Aadhaar to Voter ID because doing this in the case of PDS system created a myriad of problems and it was the underprivileged at the end of the day who had to face the consequences of failures in the government machinery.
Dr. Zaidi (Former CEC) talked about different ways through which people could be allowed to vote. He mentioned proxy votes, physically transporting the votes cast, votes cast through the internet. At the end of it he explained why these measures are improbable and how they are logistical nightmares. He also said that the MRI-NRI issue has been discussed in the parliament at great length. In fact, the legislators seemed to have liked the idea of making it easier for migrants to vote. “The only problem they identified, was that no agency is able to give a uniform definition of migrant labourers, which made it difficult for even the legislators to agree and from consensus over a concrete concept to help MRIs vote,” he said concluding that a solution can come only when a proper definition can be developed.
Teesta Setalvad, Secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace added a poignant view to this discourse which was not heard before. She said that many provisions (4(1), chapter 6 rule 49) are provisions which mandate the government to keep a record of the registration form, certificate of registration and many other statistics with regards to the migrant labourers. All to ensure that this community of citizens is not forgotten about and the government keeps a tab on them. She said, “The government has utterly failed in fulfilling this responsibility and has done very poor job in keeping these records. Which points to the fact that there is very little political will to actually ameliorate the situation of MRIs.”
Setalvad also said that the government needs to disclose details of the inter-ministerial group which was set up to help the MRI community vote. Later she pointed out that statistics clearly prove the MRI community wants to vote but is denied to do so because of the poor socio-economic conditions and mobility. She conceded that progress will take time, but she remarked, “The right to vote is a fundamental right and we may take time to help the MRIs truly exercise this right, but we must not lose focus on this agenda and we must make it one of our top priorities.”
Ms Setalvad had also written an article in the Indian Express, which explains the importance of giving helping the MRI community vote. In this article she argues that not letting MRIs vote goes against the constitutional ethos that the framers of our constitution had instilled in it. The very fact that the only reason MRIs are not allowed to vote is the definition of their work is different. Which is, staying away from home. This is a violation of equality that our constitution promises to every individual by the virtue of their birth. Moreover, she brings the argument of privilege. Most migrant workers are from the lower caste and are extremely poor. Disenfranchising such a vulnerable community is a grave violation of their fundamental rights and an afront to humankind. She also argues that the definition of “permanent resident” in the Representation of Peoples act needs to be changed as this definition is very exclusive considering the fact that migrants have to constantly move from place to place and do not stay anywhere for a long period of time.
Ms Setalvad’s organisation Citizens for Justice and Peace has also submitted a memorandum to the election commission, the law minister and all state governments requesting the inclusion of MRIs as ‘notified electors’ under Section 60(c) of the Representation of People Act, 1951. Primarily because failure of this “class of Indians being legitimately allowed to exercise their franchise has meant, that their interest, their security and dignity, their well-being has been invisibilised from the entire political discourse of the country, be it of the ruling party or the opposition.” These issues came to the national fore during the nationwide lockdown in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, where the immense precarity of the migrant labourer in their host cities, caused a mass exodus to their home cities. The invisibility of this class of persons and their issues in political discourse contributed to the inability of legislators and policy makers to predict and prevent and mitigate the issue.
They also argued that the mass exodus highlights that fundamentally, migrant laborers do not sever their ties with their home cities. Researchers have also highlighted various home city concerns among migrant laborers, such as fear of being removed from voter lists, fear of not getting access to entitlements at home cities due to not voting, etc. In light of this connection and given their inability to transfer their constituencies to host cities, CJP believe that granting postal ballot rights in their home cities is the most effective solution to the issues of political exclusion faced by migrant laborers.
Further, A key part of the EC’s initiative and mission is “no voters to be left behind.” In furtherance of this goal the EC has undertaken many efforts to implement a safe and secure system of postal ballots, and awareness programmes to make the system more accessible. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the EC had allowed the armed forces, people above the ages of 80 and persons with disabilities the ability to use postal ballots for registering their votes. Through these initiatives and measures the EC has proven its capacity to maintain a robust system of postal ballots for voters in India. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a total of more than 28 Lakhs votes were received via postal ballots. Therefore, it is only incumbent to implement a similar system for migrant laborers.
After the panellists spoke, there was a round of Question and answers.
Q) How can duplication of names in databases be prevented without linkage with a unique id for each person?
A) Mr Rawat- National electoral roll purification programme had been launched by the government a while back and many duplicate names have been removed from the list using photo-recognition software’s and other kinds of technology. The EC has also conducted physical checks to make the electoral roll more accurate.
Q) Has the magnitude of the problem and the technoeconomic feasibility of implementing the proposal has been considered by the EC?
A) Mr Rawat- The assessment of the magnitude of this problem can happen only when we have a set definition to understand the class of people that we need to study. The EC has the tools to conduct polls for MRIs the real problem is without a definition, the EC can’t implement these resources.
Q) Can the process used for NRI voting be applied to MRI?
A) Mr Zaidi – The NRI community is easily countable, distinct, and identifiable. The same does not apply to the MRI community. Applying the NRI voting process to MRIs is not an issue, the issue is to understand for whom exactly these processes should be applied.
Q) Can remote voting process be used for the issue of migrants? What amendments will be needed, and challenges will be faced in resolving this issue?
A) Mr Rawat- Remote voting is the same as the electronic voting suggested by Mr Zaidi earlier. This is very unlikely to be used because they are not fraud proof due to which it is difficult to form political consensus on this issue.
Q) Will the online voting measures increase the scope of fraud? What measures can be taken to prevent malpractice?
A) Mr Zaidi- All kinds of frauds could happen in an online voting process. Such apprehensions are there and are very real. Hence political parties are scared and it is difficult to form a consensus for its implementation. Hence internet voting is difficult, and it will take a lot of time before this concept becomes reality.
Q) Why do political parties shun migrants when they care so much about CAA, NRC, farmers and caste?
A) Mr Zaidi- This is not a political issue, in fact they (political parties) want domestic migrants to get voting rights. However, since there is no particular definition for this community, it is difficult for the legislators to come up with a policy to implement the same.
Mr Khandelwal- MRI’s are not a voting bloc. Hence, do not do much to appease them. This is one of the reasons why the process of giving MRI’s the right to vote is taking so much time.
Towards the end of the session, it had become very evident that most of the speakers felt that the real problem with migrants not being able to vote is the lack of a definition. Hence Mr Chokkar and the other panellists agreed to work together and create a definition that would be submitted to all the political parties, the EC and the former CECs and their opinion will be taken on the definition and the process of creating a definition will be started immediately. After that Mr Chokkar ended the session with a vote of thanks.