THE most pitiable section of society these days is the migrants, particularly the labour class. Poor, jobless, homeless and hungry, hopelessly walking a thousand kilometres, with children or sacks of meager essentials on their feeble and tired shoulders, gives the whole of India goosebumps. Many times they have been tossed like football at state borders.
Some states perfunctorily organised relief camps. Even the Supreme Court let them down, refusing any monetary relief ‘since they were already getting food in these shelters’. All this happened because the Central government goofed up, not applying its mind before announcing a total lockdown at a four-hour notice, and arrogantly not considering it necessary to consult the state governments or Parliament, in session till a day before.
Surprise seems to give the government a perverse delight. The ambiguity at the end of lockdown 1.0 brought lakhs of migrants to the bus stops and railway stations, only to be shooed back. Some who could manage to walk back were shut out by their home states and villages. And now the latest: 16 migrants walking home died on the railway track. Many think the deaths should weigh on our conscience. Conscience? What’s that?
The beginning of lockdown 3.0 flared the anxieties of the workers, forcing the Centre, which probably is sensing a prolonged crisis, to allow them to travel to their native places. Such is the sad state of affairs that the labourers — with no income and food — are forced to pay for their travel. While Kerala, Maharashtra and Karnataka refused to pay for the subsidised train tickets, the Bihar CM promised to reimburse the money spent and declared free travel for the stranded students. Was the upcoming election the motivation? Nevertheless, it is better than what the Karnataka CM did — cancelling the rail travel citing resumption of construction work, a clear violation of Articles 21 and 23. The hue and cry made him reverse the decision.
Gujarat and UP’s alertness in ferrying stranded tourists in Uttarakhand and students in Kota, respectively, to their homes proved that what the migrant workers lacked was privilege. Importantly, even in this case, it was their home government that came into action and not the resident state, which brings me to the question of voting rights of migrant labourers.
Numbering about 140 million, the migrant labourers form a formidable vote bank that cannot be ignored in policy-making, provided they are armed with the right to vote at the ‘right’ place. According to one study, 83 per cent of them missed voting, divided as they were between their home and place of work.
But how can one vote in a place other than the place of birth? The answer lies in the Representation of the People Act (1950). Under Section 19, a citizen can register on the electoral roll if s/he is an ‘ordinarily resident’ (defined as six months) in the constituency. It was the wisdom of our first Parliament that acknowledged the phenomenon of migration and prioritised place of dwelling over place of birth. Had it not been for their far-sightedness, millions would have been deprived of practising the most essential right of being a citizen — the right to vote! Additionally, its absence would have provided breeding ground for anti-migrant politics — larger than what was seen in Maharashtra.
The provision to vote (in residing place) becomes crucial for the political empowerment of this neglected and despised lot. But for their voting rights, the migrants would have been hounded out. However, come elections, things change dramatically; unauthorised colonies are recognised superfast.
Migrants often have a dilemma: to register in home villages or at the place of work. The smart ones register at the place of work. This one act transforms them from unwanted ‘parasites’ to valued voters. Their parents’ vote in the village takes care of their political power back home. In any case, registering at the place of work is a legal requirement.
It is unfortunate that the underprivileged have to be reduced to a vote bank to receive the services they are entitled to. The one way it can change is through awareness about the legal right to vote at the place of ‘normal’ residence. The Election Commission should reassert its commitment to the slogan ‘No Voter is Left Behind’ by publicising the legal provisions which will convert them from parasites to voters.
The writer is former CEC
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