Internal migrants cannot vote unless they travel back to their home constituencies. The expense of this prevents a great many migrants from voting.
But perhaps a discussion on the question of voting rights of internal migrants was not within the court's purview in this instance. On November 14 last year, the Supreme Court had asked the Centre to state its position on the Election Commission's proposal to allow NRIs proxy voting through e-ballots. On Monday, the Centre told the court that it had decided to accept the recommendations. Under this plan, blank postal ballots will be transferred electronically to NRIs, who will post them back to the authorities in their constituencies.
Act was amended
Indian passport holders living overseas gained the right to vote in 2010, when parliament amended the Representation of Peoples Act for this purpose. In 2011, the government issued a notification permitting overseas voters to apply to have their names included on the electoral rolls at their place of residence.
But because these passport holders had to travel back to India to cast their votes, only 11,328 Indians living abroad had availed of the offer by the end of 2013.
The Election Commission's new proposals have made the process of voting much easier for India’s one crore NRIs.
However, this still doesn't solve the problems of India's 40 crore internal migrants, who still cannot vote in the temporary homes in which they live and work.
“The government has to be clear about it and it cannot just make special arrangements only for NRIs,” said Sharit Bhowmik, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “What about the hundreds of thousands of people who migrate within the country? If they are Indian citizens, they should be able to vote.”
Internal migrants are usually far removed from the social and structural framework of the government. They cannot access social welfare benefits either in their homes or in their current places of residence, they are often contract workers who have no job security and they also often cannot vote.
“Internal migrants are a neglected community,” said Parimal Sudhakar, programme coordinator at the Society for Labour and Development in New Delhi. “In their source place, their representatives don’t pay attention to them because they don’t come back to vote. But where they have moved also, representatives don’t pay attention to them because they don’t have voting rights.”
It isn't as if they lack the requisite documents. “At least 65%-70% of internal migrants have voter ID cards,” said Sudhakar. “Since their families in the villages will need their ration cards, they travel with their voter ID cards instead.”
However, migrants usually make their ID cards with the name of their native places, partly because of job insecurity forces them to move for work frequently and partly because it helps them to safeguard any property they have may have at home.
“Forget about internal migrants, what about election staff and policemen [who are too busy to vote on election day]?” asked Bhowmik. “Nobody makes arrangements for them, but we are suddenly worried about NRIs.”
Madison Square Garden votes
However, despite the Election Commission's proposals making it easier for all Indian passport holders abroad to vote, this may not necessarily result in changes for an overwhelming majority. The largest number of NRIs are in the Gulf, working largely as domestic employees, drivers and construction workers.
Many of them would not be able to prove their citizenship because their employers take away their passports, ostensibly for safekeeping, said Bhowmik. “Ultimately, only the kind of people who showed up at Madison Square Garden will be able to vote," he said.
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