A recent study found that in India, a local is 41% more likely to get help from political representatives than a migrant worker. Politicians respond to incentives. That’s why voting rights are a powerful tool in the hands of citizens. Its absence leads to disempowerment. Consequently, when the lockdown was declared in April its possible effects on migrant workers was overlooked, resulting in a pitiful exodus on foot that not only turned into a humanitarian disaster, but may also have spread Covid-19 far and wide across India.
Migrants are an invisible part of the economic landscape, disadvantaged by absence of voting rights. Their number has been growing fast over the last two decades. The government’s Economic Survey in 2017 estimated an annual average flow of interstate migrants at about 9 million in the period 2011-16. Even migrants who stay on for good struggle to get registered locally as voters as the attendant paperwork to transfer their rights is cumbersome. To put their plight in perspective, compare the enthusiasm with which political parties take up the cause of NRI voting and their indifference towards domestic migrants.
The Election Commission has been open to harnessing technology to find ways in which domestic migrants can vote from outside their constituencies. EC also needs to revisit the processes which enable people to transfer their voting rights to a different part of the country. Many economic migrants are exploited and struggle to meet the documentation needs. There are ways to use pan-India identifiers to ease the process. If Aadhaar was a landmark in creating an identity delinked from a single location, the portability project has gone ahead to encompass health insurance and will in future add PDS benefits. It should also extend to voting rights that will not only empower people, but also combat the ugly rise of nativism across states.