x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Migrant workers an ignored electorate

Despite requests, election commission has yet to allow all citizens to cast ballots by post.

Mohammad Humayun Islam, a migrant worker in Mumbai, says he cannot afford the loss of income and the cost of travel if he were to go back to his home in West Bengal to cast his vote.
Mohammad Humayun Islam, a migrant worker in Mumbai, says he cannot afford the loss of income and the cost of travel if he were to go back to his home in West Bengal to cast his vote.

NEW DELHI // It is 9am outside Mumbai's suburban Khar station and Mohammad Humayun Islam, a bag stuffed with hand tools flung over his back, is doing what he has been doing almost every morning for the past 16 years - waiting to get work for the day. As Mr Islam stood among scores of other men, he said he would not be able to participate in the country's elections because he could not afford to travel to his native village in West Bengal state where he is listed as a voter. "My village in Malda district [close to the border of Bangladesh] is about 2,000 kilometres from here. If I want to vote I have to spend at least 1,500 rupees [Dh110] on travel and other related expenses. Then by being away from work for about 10 days, I shall lose at least another 1,500 rupees. I cannot afford to lose as much as 3,000 rupees just to be able to cast my vote," Mr Islam said. "Previously I used to get a job here almost every day. But in the past year the situation has been worse for all construction workers. Every week I have been going jobless for two to three days. I cannot make any trip home now." Mr Islam, who lives with four other migrant construction workers in a 2.4m by 3m room in a slum in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb, said with their incomes dwindling in recent months, most of his fellow day labourers were skipping the elections. "Around me in the [Bandra] slum there are at least 60 construction workers from our Malda district and none of them are going to cast their vote this time," Mr Islam said. While voting through the postal system has been in place for armed forces personnel, election duty officers and other travelling officials for some time, no such arrangement exists to allow migrant workers to cast their votes at their place of work. Pressure from employers and fear of losing jobs can also deter some migrant workers from making trips to home for the vote. "Contractors are always in a hurry to finish the project as soon as possible. If we take a break for 10 or 12 days to travel to vote in our village, the work will be delayed which the contractors never want to allow," said Bhikha Khedia, working on a high-rise project in Gurgaon city and leading a group of 85 migrant workers from eastern Jharkhand state. In 2003, India's election commission amended the Representation of People Act, officially enabling "any person belonging to a class of persons notified by the Election Commission in consultation with the government to give his vote by postal ballot". But the change has had little effect in allowing India's migrant workers to vote when far away from home. While some farm labourers and road workers might opt for seasonal migration that lasts up to a few months, workers in construction, factories, housekeeping and hundreds of other vocations are mostly identified as long-term migrant workers. Because of this, political leaders have recently been vocal in demanding an alternative arrangement to help all Indians cast their votes if they are unable for work or health reasons to make it to the polling booth where they are registered. "In the true spirit of Indian democracy, it is imperative that the country now expands the postal ballot system to allow all Indian citizens to exercise their right to vote by post," Naveen Jindal, a Congress member of parliament, wrote in a report this month. "The purpose of my call is to make the electoral process in India far more inclusive and far less cumbersome, such that each and every Indian is able to exercise not only the right to vote, but also have the opportunity to vote." Ghanshyam Shah, a political scientist and former director of Surat's Centre for Social Studies, agrees, saying authorities should undertake serious efforts to help migrant workers register as voters where they are employed. "Most migrant workers, being outsiders, are usually exploited by their employers. If they win the voting rights at the place where they work, it will empower them in many terms as they will be approached by local politicians and local authorities will not be able to ignore them that easily," Mr Shah said. Some rights activists think that, despite the politicians' talk, migrant workers are not going to be able vote where they work any time soon. "Our whole energy is spent after our struggle for a basic right like the minimum wage of a migrant worker. We are not in a position to fight for their voting rights, at least for now," said S A Azad, a Delhi-based activist with Nirman Mazdoor Shakti Sangathan (Construction Workers Empowerment Organisation). As for Mr Islam casting a ballot, he said despite living and working in Mumbai for 16 years, he had not been able to register as a voter in the city because he did not have an officially acceptable proof of local residence. "I have my voter ID card I got in West Bengal years ago. But I carry it with me just to show it to the police [to prove that I am an Indian citizen] when they take me for a Bangladeshi. I am not using it for casting my vote any more," Mr Islam said. "My fate will not change, whichever party comes to power. I have to keep struggling the way I have been struggling for so many years. I cannot take the issue of my voting that seriously, in fact." aziz@thenational.ae