What happens when you combine the world’s largest democratic exercise with the world’s largest migrant population?
In less than a fortnight, India will begin voting for its 17th Lok Sabha. But a significant number of Indian voters will be excluded from this process: migrants.
IMPEX 2018/19 Analysis: Panchayat /Municipal level Political Participation
India Migration Now’s state-wise, comparative study of interstate migrant integration, comparing different destination states, Inter-State Migrant Policy Index (IMPEX) reveals a systematic lack of attention paid to the question of political participation. The IMPEX average for the seven major migrant-receiving states — Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, and Delhi — is a mere 26. 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.
The question is not simply one of improving enrolment rates for migrants. For short-term, circular migrants, enrolling at destination is not as attractive an option as many of them return home often. 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.
For many states, such as Uttar Pradesh, the question is also one of disenfranchisement of minorities given the large proportions of their Muslim and Dalit migrant populations. 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).
“Approximately 60 million men and women, crisscrossing the country as migrant workers, will be 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.”
The Migrants Indian Democracy Forgot: Internal Migrants and their Voting Rights in India
While democracy is in retreat world over, it is thriving more than ever before in India. 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 the government is a pillar of Indian democracy
Despite these achievements, India has systematically disenfranchised an increasing proportion of its population from elections.
According to the Census of 2011, the number of migrants in India was over 400 million. The 2007–08 NSSO survey estimated India’s migrant population to be around 326 million, which is some 29 per cent of India’s population. The NSSO survey also notes that migration rates have been gradually increasing since 1983. The Economic Survey of 2017 estimated that 9 million individuals migrated internally on an annual basis between 2011–16. A large proportion of migrants fall in the vulnerable categories of short term and circular migrants who are typically concentrated in the informal sector. Despite their numerical strength, internal migrants are among the most exploited and the most easily disenfranchised. Poor urban migrants have the lowest recorded voter turnouts.
Although the debate about political inclusion at source vs. destination is a complex one, studies show a higher rate of political inclusion at source due to the effective leveraging of vote banks by parties. However, the reality of increasing migration rates all across the country must bring the question of political inclusion at destination centre-stage whether through portability of voting rights or institutional mechanisms facilitating the process of internal migrants travelling to register their vote.
The above figures demonstrate how voter turnout at the national level has decreased as migration rates increase over time, as well as a trend of increasing state turnout: a federalisation of electoral politics. Source: Election Commission of India, Press Trust of India, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Let’s look at the example of USA and how they manage interstate voting:
All states in the US have absentee voting, but rules differ from state to another. States can choose to provide three ways for voters to cast a ballot before Election Day:
- Early Voting: In 39 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required.
- Absentee Voting: All states will mail an absentee ballot to certain voters who request one. The voter may return the ballot by mail or in person. In 19 states, an excuse is required, while 28 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. Some states offer a permanent absentee ballot list: once a voter asks to be added to the list, s/he will automatically receive an absentee ballot for all future elections.
- Mail Voting: A ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter. In-person voting sites may also be available for voters who would like to vote in-person and to provide additional services to voters. Three states mail ballots to all eligible voters for every election. Other states may provide this option for some types of elections.
Voting Rights for the World’s largest population of Emigrants
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.
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 travelling back to India and 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. The 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. Art. 14, the equal protection clause of the Constitution, allow similar classes of people to be treated differently if such differentiation has a rational and logical basis. 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.
In this episode, Varun (IMN Founder) is joined by Dr Ashwini Kumar (TISS, Mumbai), Dnyaneshwar M. Mulay (who was until recently, Secretary of Consular, Passport, Visa and Overseas Indian Affairs). The podcasts also feature various migrant voices describing their hopes and aspirations regarding the elections. Issues of election and migrant welfare, solutions for migrant voting and immigrant voting rights also discussed, as election season reaches fever pitch in India.
Produced by Nakul Aggarwal
Theme and Background Music: Aphex Twin
We’ll be releasing policy briefs, more podcasts, articles and tons of analysis on migration and political participation in the coming month.
So please please share this newsletter, let’s get those “network effects” in action.
The IMN team
About India Migration Now
India Migration Now was founded in February 2018. We want to change the policy perspective that sees migration as something to limit and control into something which has to be harnessed and cultivated. An effective migration policy regime can become the most effective poverty-reducing program for the Indian government.
Ours is a geographically diverse team of collaborators (from 7 countries and 5 Indian states) consisting of researchers, entrepreneurs, teachers and people who really like data and policies. But we are bounded by a passion for India’s development, deep allergy to balderdash and love for collaborative endeavours.