A vote too far: India’s election through the eyes of its internal migrants

Despite the Election Commission’s campaigns urging every citizen to vote, millions of migrant workers find it nearly impossible to cast their ballot.

Published : May 25, 2024 20:59 IST - 8 MINS READ

Workers at a coastal road project construction site in Mumbai, Aug 26, 2021.

Workers at a coastal road project construction site in Mumbai, Aug 26, 2021. | Photo Credit: RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

“Among every 1,000 men in our villages, around 300 voters are working outside the State. It is not possible for all of them to return to cast their vote,” says Habib Biswas, 29, from Faridpur in Murshidabad district, West Bengal, who drives heavy vehicles for a living. He is, however, among those who did make the long journey home from Kerala to West Bengal to vote. Even as the Election Commission of India belts out slogans—”Your Vote, Your Voice”, “Chunav Ka Parv, Desh Ka Garv”, ‘”Mera Vote, Meri Duty”,the choice to vote is simply not a reality for India’s vast migrant workforce.

The 2011 census put the tally of inter-State migrants at more than 4.14 crore people. More recent data such as the Multiple Indicator Survey says nearly three in every 10 persons in India were migrants in 2020-21. While intra-State migration forms a chunk (over 87 per cent), four in 10 among those who had migrated for work were inter-State migrants. According to the Migration in India report, based on the Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted in 2020-2021, India’s migration rate was nearly 29 per cent overall and nearly 35 per cent in urban areas.

Biswas’ village is in Faridpur in the Domkal sub-division of Murshidabad district. The district was identified as one among the major corridors of migration to Kerala by the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), and a recent news report quoting a government official said it accounted for the highest migration rates among the State’s 23 districts. In these villages, the signs of remittance from migration are visible: parts of kuccha houses now have concretised rooms. After his 10-year stint in Kerala, he can now speak Malayalam and Hindi, apart from Bengali. He explains the dilemma faced by migrant workers. “There are many reasons people can’t come to vote. Travel will cost Rs.5,000. If we don’t work for 10 days, then that’s another Rs.10,000 lost. Workers don’t have those kind of savings.”  

Habib Biswa

Habib Biswa | Photo Credit: Annie Philip

Matiur Rahaman, secretary, Karna Subarna Welfare Society, which works for the welfare of domestic and international migrants in Murshidabad, says domestic migrants mainly return during festivals, and are also keen to return during panchayat polls. “Around 50 per cent come then as many have relatives who are contesting. Their travel expenses are covered by political leaders or relatives at such time. It is not the same during Lok Sabha elections.”

Also Read | NITI Aayog's draft national policy on migrant workers: A narrow vision document

This sentiment is echoed at a community centre of non-profit Agrasar in Gurugram, Delhi NCR. Naina Pradhan, 34, from Kendrapara, Odisha, runs a home-based tailoring unit in Gurugram where she lives with her family of four. “If someone arranges for tickets, we can go. Once my nephew was contesting the panchayat election and he arranged tickets for us. We went then. In the decade that we have moved here, we have only gone to vote a couple of times,” she says. Apart from money being a factor, Pradhan says her children are attending school in Gurugram. A trip to Odisha will mean several days of missed classes.

Anita Pal, 32, chimes in. “Even the poor would like to vote, but they cannot,” she says. Hailing from Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Pal runs a small grocery in a rented space. Her husband works as a security guard. “If one guard goes on leave, he can be easily replaced. If we have to go, it takes 16 hours by bus and we will need at least three days. The shop will have to be closed and we will lose out the Rs.600-1,000. It is a loss. I know it is important to vote,” says Pal, voicing concerns that her name may be struck off the electoral rolls.

Also from Uttar Pradesh, and working in Bengaluru for the last 20 years is Jeetu Chouhan, 37. A painter on daily wages, Chouhan says there are around 50 men from his Gorakhpur village in the Rachenahalli settlement in North Bengaluru where he stays. They work as security guards, painters, carpenters and construction helpers, and none were making the trip back, he says. “We want to vote but cannot. Even if our relatives are contesting elections, we cannot go. I pay a monthly rent of Rs.4,000 for the house. We have to pay that even if we aren’t here,” says Chouhan.

On a different note, Sushanto Das, 51, seated at a CMID centre in Perumbavoor, Ernakulam district, Kerala, is dismissive of monetary concerns raised by other migrant workers. “I am always back at my village during elections. Why won’t I vote? It’s my right,” he says. Das, from Sadikhanr Diar village in Jalangi, Murshidabad district, has been in Kerala for 10 years working as a daily wage labourer.

Not all migrant workers are equally enthusiastic about the elections. Rahim, 26, also from Nagaon and working in Perumbavoor, has concerns about his work that he would rather deal with first. He hopes to make enough to return to Assam in two years.

Anita Pal

Anita Pal | Photo Credit: Annie Philip

Rajesh, who used to work in Kerala as a driver around 10 years ago, and now works as a bus conductor on the busy Kolkata-Murshidabad route, makes a different point: “A lot of my extended family is in Kerala. Many won’t come for the election not just because it’s expensive, but because they are angry. They say why should we vote for an MP here, while we slog away in other places. Employment is a problem as is inflation. Many have huge loans to repay. But they will return for Assembly, municipality and panchayat elections as they feel the elected representative is here in Bengal and will work for them. In the Lok Sabha elections, the winning candidate goes to Delhi.” He fondly recalls eating kappa (tapioca) and dried fish during his stay in Kerala.

CAA and NRC concerns

Benoy Peter, co-founder and executive director, CMID, says that among migrant workers in Kerala, a significant portion from the Muslim community in Assam and some from West Bengal are returning to vote over fears around the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The Calcutta Research Group’s study, ‘Migrants in Electoral Time: Reports on Assam, Bihar and West Bengal Assembly Elections, 2020-2021’ observes the significance of NRC-CAA-NPR during earlier elections too, recognising the West Bengal elections especially to be a mandate over claims of citizenship.

Also Read | The Citizenship Amendment Act: A tumultuous journey

In December 2022, the ECI announced a prototype for a multi-Constituency remote electronic voting machine, which would enable voting for migrant voters. It noted that “migration-based disenfranchisement is indeed not an option in the age of technological advancement” and that it was concerned about the issue of over 30 crore electors not exercising their franchise in the 2019 general election. It said the initiative can lead to a “social transformation for the migrants”. But it did not take off. Frontline reached out to the ECI several times, but did not receive a response.

“Migration is a fundamental right. Voting is also a fundamental right,” says CMID’s Peter, adding remote voting is the way to go. “If migrants are able to cast their vote without fear, they will be able to alter the political equation,” he says. “Changing addresses repeatedly on identity cards such as voter identity cards is difficult, and they can also be the only link to social security schemes in their home villages.”

A post-Covid general election

It took Covid’s national lockdown in 2020 for the country to reckon with the plight of migrant workers. With no income, social security or transport in the initial period, thousands had to return to their home states on foot, often walking hundreds of kilometres. The SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network) survey in 2020 in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown had found more than 90 per cent of migrant workers did not receive rations from the government and had not been paid by their employers.

Sushanto Das

Sushanto Das | Photo Credit: Annie Philip

The face of the distraught migrant worker was splashed across national and international media. While the government claimed in September 2020 it had no data on migrant workers who lost their jobs and their lives during the lockdown, it emerged in June 2021 that over 8,700 people died on railway tracks alone in the 2020 lockdown, many of whom were migrants.  

In the first general election post Covid, how significant are issues concerning migrant workers in electoral politics? A lack of employment opportunities, low wages, loans to repay and failing agriculture in the home States was repeatedly listed out by the migrant workers Frontline spoke to.

While the large out-migration is a poll issue in West Bengal with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) painting it as a failure of the ruling Trinamool Congress party, and migrants have made it to the manifestos of the BJP and Congress, much remains to be done to protect migrant rights.

Annie Philip is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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