Advik Rijul Jha
According to recent reports, approximately 60 million men and women, crisscrossing the country as migrant workers, were unable to cast their vote because their voting rights are restricted to their villages, where they have to be present to be able to vote.[i] This gives rise to a concern about the political voice-lessness of the migrant workers who are unable to practice their voting rights because of economic migration which is aggravated by the daily-wage based work arrangements and the time and cost of travel to their domicile. Although, a day’s leave is mandated to be provided by the Election Commission for a voter working in another state[ii], the nature of work and consequent socio-economic realities deprive migrant workers within India of their voting rights which is aggravated by the lack of official documentation of internal migration, especially for informal employment which prevents any conscientious policy actions for addressing the issue. The Right to vote is guaranteed by the Constitution under Article 326. [iii] Further, the Representation of People Act, 1951 under Sec 62[iv] which also provides the citizens of the country with a right to cast their vote. However, the implementation of this right faces hurdles as apart from the Interstate Migration Act, 1979, there is no central policy or legislation that looks into internal migration.[v]
The problem relating to voting owing to the nature and place of occupation is not a problem that is unique to migrant labourers solely. People working in the services and citizens living overseas also face this issue. However, requisite policy changes have and are being done to accommodate them. With respect to the services, proxy votes are allowed to be cast on their behalf by people who they authorize for the same or by postal ballot as they wish. This system is also known as Classified Service Voter (hereafter ‘CSV’). The qualifications of a service voter are governed by Sub-section (8) of Section 20 of Representation of People Act, 1950.[vi] At present members of the armed forces, those on election duty, some displaced communities, senior government ministers, and Indian diplomats outside the country are entitled to vote by post or through a proxy which in essence grants them their right of universal adult suffrage irrespective of their place of residence or occupation.[vii] An amendment is being contemplated in this provision as well to make the law gender-neutral as currently, an army man’s wife is entitled to be enrolled as a service voter, but a woman army officer’s husband is not, according to the provisions in the electoral law.
Coming to citizens currently residing overseas, an amendment is underway to the Representation of People Act, 1951 to incorporate proxy votes for them. [viii] As of now, non-residential Indians have to register as a voter, come to India, go to their constituency with the original passport issued to them when they had gone abroad and cast their votes.[ix] There is however no such provision for migrant voters in the pipeline yet. In fact, such a suggestion has been turned down by the Government.[x]
It is suggested that a system based on the CSV can be developed to provide migrant workers with the Right to vote as well. Allowing migrant workers to exercise their Right to vote through postal ballots as available to CSV category is a policy that can be introduced and subsequently implemented with aplomb without facing any major operational hurdles. Another page from the CSV category which can be adopted is the proxy voting system. The rationale given to thwart efforts for such a policy for migrant workers is that this can lead to votes being bought and is violative of the principle of secret ballot. In my opinion, such a rationale is not justified to be applied for only migrant workers belonging to a lower socio-economic class. The same can arguably happen with the other classes of voters as well. Hence, the proxy system of voting provided to the CSV category can be extended to migrant workers in tandem with establishing requisite machinery for verification to avoid fraud by linking Aadhaar with voting cards. The requisite machinery for such a system may take time to be set up, hence postal ballots and allowing change of constituency, as discussed subsequently, can be implemented earlier so as to not negate the Right to vote of migrant workers any further.
Alternatively, a more plausible solution in the current scenario is that migrant workers should be allowed to change the constituency in which they are registered as voters to the one where they are working. This view is in consonance with the recommendations of the Election Commission as the rules are easy for anyone to register as a voter. As per current guidelines, the day a person moves in at a new address, he or she is free to apply as a voter. With the increase in available technology, such a policy should not be difficult to implement. This would also ensure that the Right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the constitution is upheld as not providing the Right to vote to internal migrants is being challenged on this basis.
Such a method as suggested above could go a long way in making sure that the voting is more inclusive and participatory. The political inclusion of domestic migrants in elections in India can broaden and deepen the canvas of democratic governance in the country. Democracy is finally a government of, by and for the people. Excluding a portion of the population from casting their vote as is the current scenario with migrant workers based on extraneous circumstances renders the very process to be a farce. Hence, the government needs to ensure that every class and category of citizens are able to vote and to achieve this objective, requisite documentation and verification apparatus needs to be provided in an efficient manner to aid the system.
The rapid pace of urbanization in India implies that migration is likely to increase and it is imperative that the government responds with a more inclusive national policy with regard to casting of votes for migrants, overseas citizens and service class.
[i] Indrajit Roy, Ensuring voting rights for migrant labour, Hindustan Times, available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/ensure-voting-rights-for-migrant-labour/story-1JFOWsUAZdXlYsu6T6pbYO.html.
[ii] Sec 135B, the Representation of People’s Act, 1951; https://eci.gov.in/files/file/9625-general-elections-to-lok-sabha-2019-and-general-election-to-the-legislative-assembly-of-andhra-pradesh-arunachal-pradesh-odisha-7-sikkim-and-bye-elections-to-fill-the-clear-vacancies-in-assembly-constituencies-of-various-states-grant-of-paid-holiday/.
[iii] Article 326, the Constitution of India.
[iv] Sec 62, the Representation of People Act, 1951.
[v] Perspectives from Internal Labour Migrants: The Realities of Voting in India, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 54, Issue No. 18.
[vi] Sec 20 (8) of the Representation of People Act, 1951.
[viii] NRIs can vote in Lok Sabha polls through proxies? Key bill awaits Rajya Sabha test, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/nri-vote-lok-sabha-polls-5547397/.
[x] Anubhuti Vishnoi, BJP objects to ‘proxy voting’ for domestic migrant
available at https://m.economictimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/bjp-objects-to-proxy-voting-for-domestic-migrants/articleshow/65601394.cms.
The author is a student at Jindal Global Law School.