On 23 May, the formation of India’s 17th Lok Sabha will begin to take shape. And with that, the democratic principle of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” would have once again betrayed an estimated 307 million internal migrants — people who are forced to move out of their homes to other places due to economic and socio-cultural reasons. A study by Aajeevika Bureau in 2011 estimated that 60 per cent of India’s internal migrants could not vote in at least one of the elections. The concerns about internal migrants’ electoral participation appear weak in the run-up to the elections and restricted to the elusive idea of a mobile ballot, which makes a guest appearance every once in a while. But why is the representation of internal migrants, by internal migrants, and for internal migrants important?
A 2017 report prepared by the Modi government acknowledges the issues of electoral and social exclusion of migrants but does very little to address them. For instance, in Odisha’s Nuapada district, the site of my dissertation fieldwork, an estimated 1.3 lakh seasonal migrants working in the informal sector, away from their village, were unable to cast vote in the recently concluded general elections. They will be able to go home after the single crop has been harvested in November — only to return in June.
The Election Commission of India (ECI) has in the past made efforts to increase voter participation of internal migrants, but only in exceptional cases. In 1996, 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the ECI introduced postal ballots for Kashmiris staying in transit camps for an indefinite period. The ECI also made special provisions for communities displaced due to violent conflicts — Reang voters in Mizoram in 1999, and Jammu’s Talwara migrants in 2014 (although no arrangements were reportedly made in 2019 polls). Thus, the response of the ECI to political participation of internal migrants is highly selective.
Notably, the 2011 Census estimated there were 51 million internal migrants in the country. In September 2015, based on directions from the Supreme Court the ECI commissioned a report led by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. The report advocated for a “multi-local identity for domestic/internal migrants” and compiled a list of measures from other countries. However, any concrete action on the recommendations is still awaited.
Lack of representation
The disenfranchisement of internal migrants reflects a disheartening response of the state towards the community. Benefits of welfare projects like public education, healthcare and PDS do not move with the people.
Moreover, as the votes of the community are often uncertain, the community remains underserved by political representatives. This lack of representation accounts for very little progress on the issues concerning the migrants. In districts like Nuapada, which is jointly represented by the Member of Parliament from Kalahandi district, the migrants face a double jeopardy. A quick look at the bills presented in the outgoing Lok Sabha shows that there was not even a single mention of migrants from the region. The representation in Lok Sabha from districts like Kalahandi, Bolangir and Kutch have kept internal migrants at the margins of social welfare.
Several NGOs have tried to work towards improving the linkage between internal migrants and public welfare programmes but due to limited expertise, their efforts at best offer a piecemeal approach.
Another aspect to consider is the demographic of the people who migrate. Deepak Mishra, a JNU professor, identifies a typical economic migrant as mostly a Muslim or a Christian male from the OBC category aged between 15 and 34 years. Moreover, women comprise the largest group of internal migrants, although they migrate mostly after marriage, as noted in multiple academic and news reports. In other words, internal migrants come from a population that is expected to receive huge benefits from good governance. When this group does not vote, it stands to lose the most.
Many scholars have argued in favour of introducing a mobile ballot system as a way to include internal migrants in the electoral process. Others have challenged the exclusion argument by pointing out that a framework exists to transfer the person’s name from one constituency to another. These critics ignore how informal economy could lead to internal migration, which hinders the access to welfare schemes and bureaucracy.
Either way, the internal migrants continue to be forgotten during the biggest democratic exercise — of electing their representative. Although merely being able to vote is not the cure — the interface between voters and their elected representatives continues to be poor — it is the fundamental claim to citizenship that eludes internal migrants.
Kundan Mishra is a PhD candidate in the Global Governance and Human Security program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He works on issues of migration, development and international organisations. Views are personal.