It’s time to make migrant workers’ concerns an electoral issue

They are easily ignored from legislative thinking because they’re not a ‘vote bank’
Since the announcement of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) lockdown, a huge number of migrant workers have left their places of work for their homes. There is no official count on the number, but estimates suggest that it could be about half a million. According to Parliamentary records, India has about 100 million migrant workers. How could an executive decision, so wide in its repercussions, fail to account for such a large number of its own citizens?

It may have answers in our political discourse – especially the migrants’ place in it. Because they are on the move, they are never treated as a “vote bank”. It is now a pejorative reference to a captive electorate that historically votes en masse, usually pegged to allegiance to their caste (or class in the West), religion, and colour. Antithetical to that group are “swing voters”, who show no such fidelity, are hard to woo and hard to keep, but ultimately decide the election’s outcome.

India’s migrant workers are neither a vote bank nor a swing vote – most of the time, they cast no vote at all. That exacerbates their vulnerabilities more than factors such as earnings in which they greatly outstrip their peers back in the village. The Representation of People’s Act, 1951 requires the casting of votes at the place of registration. A vote, however, can be transferred, but the process is not that simple. By the time the formalities are completed, or the next election comes around, the migrant may have moved to another city in search of the next opportunity. In cities such as Mumbai, the dominant nativist agenda discourages migrants from enrolling or transferring their votes to the megacity. Political leaders don’t tailor their agendas to address migrant workers’ concerns. Even mainstream parties such as the Bhartiya Janata Party or the Congress did not subsume the migrant’s enfranchisement as an agenda in their manifesto for the last general election.

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, which aimed to protect migrant workers’ interest, served its cause well for its first decade of operation. But in 1990-91, when India faced its greatest pre-Covid-19 economic crises, labor laws were significantly watered down to allow for the rapid industrialisation. Trade union politics that had hitherto brought out successful politicians – George Fernandes, for example – were forced to find other biddings. India’s employee provident fund has a mere 45 million active users across private and public establishments. Despite the 1979 Act requiring the creation of a central registry of migrant workers, the Union labour minister told the Parliament a year ago that the government maintains no such database.
Freedom to move freely, live and settle in any part of India is guaranteed as a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution. Interstate movement of the workforce is not only the lifeline of the India’s famed demographic dividend but also a dividend of federalism where state governments compete with each other on socioeconomic policies to attract more skilled workforce.

In the now legendry case of Indira Gandhi v/s Raj Narain, the Supreme Court’s Justice HR Khanna had opined that free and fair election is an essential element of a democracy – with successive judgments emphasising on that principal. But how free is an election that effectively disenfranchises nearly 8% of its population for the simple fault of exercising their fundamental right to migrate within the country?

A 2015 Tata Institute of Social Sciences report correlated that states with higher rates of migration are associated with lower voter turnouts. In order to facilitate electoral participation of migrant workers, the report called for a national consultation on early voting, postal ballot, proxy voting, and electronic voting – early and alternative voting systems widely used in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. Palagummi Sainath, the founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India, has suggested that, to include the migrant votes, elections should be timed with the harvest season. It has precedence. The Election Commission of India has in the past made successful voting provisions for Kashmiri migrants, Jammu’s Talwara migrants, and Mizoram’s Reangs.
Nothing can justify the exclusion of the tens of millions of our own citizens from the political bargain of India. Migrants should fight to port their votes wherever they go, and we, in solidarity, should corral for those rights.