Securing the migrant vote

Sanjay Kumar

is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)

Aaliyia Mallik

is a researcher with Lokniti-CSDS

Vibha Attri

is a researcher with Lokniti-CSDS

After several weeks of intense election campaigning by all the political parties, today is the day for the voters of Karnataka to exercise their franchise. As per a report in this newspaper, the number of migrants in Karnataka increased from the previous decade. Also, 42.12% of Greater Bengaluru’s population originates from outside the district or the State. Given this large migrant population in Karnataka, Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies conducted a study between April 28 and May 1 among the migrant voters of Bengaluru to find out their voting patterns.

Apprehensions of workers

Our study in the localities of migrant workers from north and north-east India showed that nearly 99% of them were not registered as voters in Karnataka. Most of these workers who live in houses near power mills or in makeshift arrangements near construction sites continued to retain their names on the voter lists of their home constituencies. Some of them were not able to adequately exercise their political voting rights due to geographical constraints; they found it difficult to travel home for every election. A migrant labourer from West Bengal said, “I went back home once to vote and I didn’t go twice. I will go back to vote during the next Lok Sabha election.”

Migrant workers across India are often apprehensive about registering themselves as voters in any other State apart from their home State. This is due to various reasons such as frequent changes in residence, fear of losing property in their home State, and their inability or unwillingness to bring their families with them as well. We found very few migrants (less than 5%) whose families were living with them. On being asked why this was the case, the migrants said their localities were not safe for women. A migrant shop owner said, “We are all men here, so we can’t bring our families. It’s not safe.”

The Election Commission of India (ECI)’s proposal for introducing Remote Voting Machines (RVMs) seeks to extend voting facilities to such migrant workers who find it difficult to travel to their native place to vote, and thus prevent the loss of votes. Some political parties objected to RVMs, saying the ECI has not responded to pending complaints and questions about the trustworthiness of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). While there was little awareness among the migrant workers about the ECI’s proposal to introduce RVMs, 80% of them supported the proposal when they were told about it. They were happy that RVMs would enable them to vote there and that they would not have to go home to vote. A barber from Bihar said, “If what you’re saying is true, it will be great, especially for us. Paying rent and then going home and coming back is a waste of money. If this is the plan, it’s a good one.”

Less than 10% expressed their apprehensions about this mode of voting. Many voiced their concerns and anxieties about the system’s accuracy. A mill worker from Uttar Pradesh said, “I will only cast my vote from my village. I don’t trust that machine.” Another worker said, “It shouldn’t be like this because we don’t know whether the vote is actually going to the person we voted for.”

These statements show an acknowledgement of the ECI’s move, but also bring to light the lack of dialogue around the procedure and viability of RVMs. The study shows that the RVM initiative is a much-needed one for many, but it requires an additional push. For remote voting to materialise as a good alternative for the lakhs of migrant workers across the country, it needs more thought and greater transparency.

It was reassuring that despite the difficulties involved in casting their vote or their inability to do so, the respondents greatly valued their voting rights. They said it was their duty and responsibility to vote as citizens of the country. They also said to vote is important in a democracy. A labourer from Malda in West Bengal said, “It is a necessity for us to cast our vote. We are Indians and this is a priority for us.”

The migrants said none of them had ever received money or goods or services from any candidates or parties in exchange for their vote. They said they travelled back to their home States without any support or expectations.

A minimum standard of living

The study also indicated the involuntary choices that migrant workers have to make in order to maintain a minimum standard of living. Many of the migrant workers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam, who were living in Bengaluru and its outskirts, said low and irregular wages and lack of opportunities in their home States were motivating and compelling reasons for them to move to a new place without their families. Even though a sizeable proportion of the migrant workers had worked in Bengaluru for decades, they were happy to move to their home States if they were offered comparatively lower pay. The most popular reason for this was to be closer to home and to their families and meet fewer expenses. A labourer from Cooch Behar, West Bengal, said, “In a month, if I earn ₹30,000 here and if in West Bengal I earned ₹15,000-20,000, I would still work there, for I would be at home. Why would I come this far?”

Lakhs of migrants who left their homes in search of livelihoods live in places far from the heart of the city. Not only have they left their home States, they have also given up on significant rights. While elections are an opportunity for people to exercise their fundamental rights, the votes of migrant voters have been missing for years. While the ECI’s move provides a ray of hope to millions of migrant workers, two crucial priorities ahead are to create awareness about the initiative and ensure transparency.

While the Election Commission’s RVM proposal provides hope to millions of migrant workers, two crucial priorities ahead are to create awareness about the initiative and ensure transparency