[Originally published: The Wire]

The COVID-19 lockdown has placed the plight of the migrant workers into the forefront of public discourse.

The response to the crisis must encompass the question of strengthening the political rights of the migrant workers beyond concerns for livelihood – including substantive enfranchisement of migrant workers, which is likely to enable them to speak in the language of political rights and force the political parties to listen to them.

Thus, it will prepare the ground for legislating and implementing a framework, integrating the issues of workplace and citizenship rights. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has already extended the voting right to Non-Residential Indians (NRIs) and promised an extension of postal ballot voting rights if they are unable to travel to their constituency, which, in our view, makes the demand for remote voting for the internal migrants more legitimate.

Why remote ballot for internal migrants?

Migration of workers, particularly from village to cities, has become a major and unacknowledged source of the Indian growth story in the last two decades. Scholars and activists working with migrants have argued that such large scale and fluid migration must accompany a corresponding social security infrastructure backed by a new framework.

Moreover, The Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 appears severely inadequate and rarely implemented. To ensure non-discrimination at the societal level, it is crucial to expand the reach of their political subjectivity. One way to achieve this is to implement the postal ballot (or some kind of proxy voting-booth in the host-state) for the migrant workers.

Several Lok Sabha and assembly elections data reveal that many of the migrant workers were, in fact, the missing voters, as they could not make their journeys back home during the time of elections or be present during list compilation. Thus, they remain uncounted with their political right practically disenfranchised.

While proposing a Bill in 2018 to extend proxy voting rights to NRIs, the Union law minister mentioned there was a ‘need for the country to respect and recognise the achievements of the NRIs…’ While arguing for substantial voting rights for the migrant workers, we would want to remember that migrant workers have played a crucial role in the ‘growth’ story that India writes.

Also, it is their remittances back home, to their villages, that remains central to the village economy and otherwise impoverished households. Therefore, it is high time that migrant-workers are seen, not as recipients of charity and sympathy, but as rightfully entitled subjects, whose life and work shape the economy of the nation.

Despite being numerically strong and internally networked through family, caste and local or regional level connections, migrant workers crucially lack bargaining power, as they have not yet enrolled themselves as a political community or constituency in competitive electoral politics. In this respect, their trajectory differs from the oppressed caste communities who could make their presence felt at the ballot box.

A woman leaves after casting her vote at a polling station during the first phase of general election in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra river, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, India April 11, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

A woman leaves after casting her vote at a polling station during the first phase of general election in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra river, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, India April 11, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Migrant workers are also difficult to organise within the fold of conventional trade unions because of the diversity of employment contexts, spatial dispersion and a high degree of mobility. Historian Samita Sen has illustrated that, more often than not, they inhabit workplaces that substantially differ from the more confined spatial organisation of factories and offices. Also, in many cases, due to their economic insecurity and the lack of social footings at the host-state as low-paid migrants, there are many social barriers for them to organise themselves even when they work in a factory.

However, due to immense mobility, they get to interact with various sections of society and thus work as social conduits. Newer kinds of trade union initiatives should capture the issues of diversity, contingency, scale and mobility in their pursuit toward a new generality. The current lockdown has brought to the fore their overarching identity as “migrants”, over and above other contextual identities of occupation and kinship.

During the lockdown, this identity has repeatedly asserted itself through spontaneous mass-gatherings in major urban transit hubs. Remote voting for migrant workers will further consolidate this identity and enable newer organising in the trade union plane to imagine new generalities, consistent with the contemporary realities of migration and work.

Recently, the issue of “remote voting’’ surfaced along with the attempt to link the ECI database with Aadhaar. It is argued that this linkage will “sanitise” electoral roll by driving away “bogus voters” and it will also allow the migrant voters to vote remotely.

The prior experience of Aadhaar linkage with the PDS makes us believe that any such attempt will further disenfranchise the migrants. There will be instances of the cancellation of bona fide voter cards along with numerous cases of the failure to link the two databases at the time of voting, empowered at times by the failure of biometric authentication. What we ask for, is a simple infrastructure of remote voting, no less, no more.

Disenfranchisement: a concern of democracy

One of the arguments given many times is that anyone, including the migrant-workers, can always register as a voter in their host constituencies. The rules for constituency change are as follows: one can only be enrolled for voting in her place of residence, and not in a place where she is currently staying. A person cannot claim to remain a voter in her native place just because she owns a house there.

In short, the individual’s inalienable right to vote is conditioned by a rather strict residency qualification. Thus, our system is biased toward the comparatively sedentary population. As a consequence, it tends to disenfranchise the migrant and peripatetic populations.  This system is not commensurate with the mobility of the migrant workers, and hence, it calls for serious reform. Moreover, an en masse constituency switch might lead to ethnic anxieties in the host-states, making it almost impossible in practical terms.

The Census of 2011 estimated that internal migration increased by 45% within a decade. A recent survey of 3,018 migrant workers in the construction sector in Delhi and Lucknow reports that 63% of the sample could be termed as “single migrants”, making 2.55 trips each year to their villages, and dividing the year almost equally between various construction sites and the village.

More strikingly, over half of them had been into this “circular migration” for close to a decade or so. The survey reveals that these migrant workers dwell in the building sites, manage space on the street, or rent a bed in an illegal squatter colony. It is obvious that such workers will lack paperwork in support of their citizenship.

In India, internal migration of the working class has historically been a “state subject”. The introduction of the postal ballot will drive competitive electoral politics of the migrants’ “homeland” to these peri-urban construction sites, which in turn, will make the sender states more responsive to their needs, keeping in mind the electoral arithmetic.

The migrants’ question can then be also understood through citizenship and not just from the perspective of livelihood. The horizon of political subjectivity of the migrant workers cannot be solely captured through the lens of either only workplace rights, or just voting rights. The concern here can be read in the other way round, not of migrants, but as a concern of democracy.

Shreya Ghosh is a PhD candidate at Centre for Political Studies, JNU and Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay is an assistant professor at IISER, Mohali. This article draws from the experience of extending relief support as part of Migrant Workers Solidarity Network. Views are personal.