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Missing migrant voters in India and why they matter; states with higher rates of migration known to have lower voter turnouts

  • With over 400 million migrants, India has the world's largest migrant population. A significant number of these migrants are seasonal and temporary migrants

  • While the participation rate of migrants in their home state and panchayat is higher, a significant number of them miss out on voting in these elections, which in many ways is worse, given the importance of state and local governments

  • A 2016 field experiment in multiple major Indian cities, conducted by Gaikwad and Nellis, concluded that the belief system among the political class that they can ignore requests of a migrant during local elections (due to their low participation) is because politicians foresee no electoral returns to providing assistance to these migrants

What happens when you combine the world's largest democratic exercise with the world's largest migrant population? The second phase of polling in 2019 Lok Sabha elections are a few days away, but a significant number of Indian voters who will be excluded from this process are the migrants.

While democracy is in retreat world over, it is thriving more than ever before in India. The universal adult franchise, i.e. the ability of each and every eligible citizen to vote in elections (right down to the local level), and have a say in choosing their government, is one of the key pillars of Indian society.

Despite these achievements, India has systematically dis-enfranchised an increasing proportion of its population from elections.

Both, internal migrants (Indian citizens migrating within Indian borders) and international migrants (Indian citizens migrating to destinations outside India) have the right to vote. So, the issue is not of rights and legality, but of facility, implementation and political will.

Why migrants votes matter?

With over 400 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.

In the 2014 elections, there were 834 million registered voters out of which 280 million did not vote — a larger voter base than any other democracy in the world. While some chose not to vote, there were many who could not vote because they were not present in their registered constituency.

 Missing migrant voters in India and why they matter; states with higher rates of migration known to have lower voter turnouts

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.

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. Furthermore, for many states, such as Uttar Pradesh, the question is also one of the disenfranchisement of minorities given the large proportions of their Muslim and Dalit migrant populations.

It not surprising that studies have found that states with higher rates of migration are associated with lower voter turnouts.

State and Panchayat/Municipal Elections

Electoral exclusion of migrants is not limited to Lok Sabha elections.

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While the participation rate of migrants in their home state and panchayat is higher, a significant number of them miss out on voting in these elections, which in many ways is worse, given the importance of state and local governments. There is a perception that many migrants choose to vote in local elections over general elections because it has a more direct perceivable impact on their lives and families (and often involves voting for a family member or friend).

A state-wise comparative study by the India Migration Now of inter-state migrant integration, comparing all the major Indian destination states, Inter-State Migrant Policy Index (IMPEX) reveals a systematic lack of attention paid to the question of political participation in panchayat/municipal elections.

The IMPEX average for the seven major migrant-receiving states — Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, and Delhi — is a mere 26 out of 100. Some states, such as Gujarat and Kerala, have scored as low as 0 and 17. This is because all states require voters and potential candidates to be present on the constituency's electoral rolls, which is often not possible due to state-level residency restrictions for non-natives.

Consequently, the sub-policy area of 'Electoral Rights' has an average IMPEX score of 36 with both Gujarat and Maharashtra scoring 0 due to these residency restrictions.

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Political Participation and Welfare

Lives of Indian migrants are characterised by extreme vulnerabilities and widespread socio-economic exclusion in their destinations. India Migration Now's Inter-State Migrant Policy Index (IMPEX) reveals widespread socio-economic exclusion and discrimination of migrants by state-level policies.

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Many migrants struggle to integrate into destination cities, facing severe hurdles to accessing adequate housing, as well as essential public goods and services such as healthcare and education. A key explanation for these difficulties lies in unequal political representation.

A 2016 field experiment in multiple major Indian cities, conducted by Gaikwad and Nellis, concluded that the belief system among the political class that they can ignore requests of a migrant during local elections (due to their low participation) is because politicians foresee no electoral returns to providing assistance to these migrants.

Many migrants try to find a way to vote because the act of voting is itself a way to verify one's identity: being on electoral rolls year after year helps migrants establish residency and tenure in a particular place, and this record is often enough to serve as a proof of address, which can in turn help migrants obtain ration cards.

Voting is a way of establishing eligibility for other basic rights of citizenship, such as housing and education. But the ability to vote is itself an expression of citizenship rights. The major difficulty for most migrants is finding a point of entry into this cycle.

NRIs versus internal migrants

The demand for an electoral framework catering to the needs of Indian citizens living abroad has gained tremendous momentum in the past decade. Prior to 2011, non-resident Indians (NRIs) could not exercise their franchise because the law required citizens to physically reside within their constituency before they could register as voters. Consequently, the Representation of People Act, 1950 was amended in 2011 to permit overseas citizens to register in the constituency which was mentioned in their passports, effectively giving NRIs voting rights.

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A total of 11,846 NRIs were registered as overseas electors in the 2014 elections. As the chart shows, 97% of them were registered in Kerala whereas other states witnessed negligible participation. Policy makers soon realised the need for alternatives because the requirement of physically participating in the voting process was discouraging NRI participation. The Indian diaspora also exerted pressure by filing a slew of writ petitions in the Supreme Court demanding the introduction of flexible voting mechanisms.

The Election Commission set up the Committee for Exploring Feasibility of Alternative Options for Voting by Overseas Electors in 2014 to address the issue. The Report ruled out personal voting at diplomatic missions and internet voting on account of the logistical difficulties involved. Instead the Committee favoured the e-postal ballot system while also recommending proxy voting as a possible alternative.

Despite the Committee's clear preference for e-postal ballots, the government zeroed in on proxy voting by enacting the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2017. This bill, which has been passed by the Lok Sabha, allows NRIs to vote in their registered constituencies with the help of a proxy. The government hopes that the move will increase NRI participation because voters no longer have to travel back to India to cast their vote.

However, the Bill has faced resistance from the Election Commission which argues that proxy voting is antithetical to the secret ballot principle because it requires voters to disclose their preference to another individual who votes on their behalf. Proxy voting is also highly susceptible to fraud because there is no way to guarantee that the proxy will vote in accordance with the elector's preferences.

More importantly, the Bill only provides proxy voting rights to emigrants while denying similar rights to internal migrants. This increases the likelihood of the Bill facing a constitutionality challenge in the courts. Since there is no logical reason to treat emigrants and internal migrants differently, the Bill is likely to be struck down if passed by the Rajya Sabha.

Migrant voting will  increasingly come from minority backgrounds

One of the abiding characteristics of post 1991 India is the easy availability of cheap and (largely) informal migrant labour. These migrants have built the urban infrastructure powering the Indian economy, worked for below minimum wages in abysmal conditions to keep the domestic industries competitive and investment friendly, and provided flexible and cheap services to keep the urban affluent classes, affluent. In the absence of a migrant labour workforce, the Indian economy would come to a standstill.

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.

Without electoral inclusion, effective integration of migrants is not possible. And integration of migrants is essential if we are make the most of our demographic dividend and also for the prevention of inter ethnic tensions between natives and migrants.

The scale of electoral exclusion is staggering and unprecedented. Facilitating the participation of migrants in the country is of utmost importance if elections are to become truly inclusive in India.

The author is the founder and lead at India Migration Now, a Mumbai-based migration data, research and media agency. Follow their work here: @nowmigration

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2019 19:45:43 IST