Vote or work? Tough call for India’s migrant workers - GulfToday

Vote or work? Tough call for India’s migrant workers

People travel on a boat to cast their ballot near a polling station during the second phase of voting for the India's general election at Gashbari village in Darrang district of Assam state on April 26, 2024. AFP

People travel on a boat to cast their ballot near a polling station during the second phase of voting for the India's general election at Gashbari village in Darrang district of Assam state on April 26, 2024. AFP

Annie Banerji, Reuters

To go back home in eastern India, cast his vote and spend time with his wife and three children would be ideal, said Shafiq Ansari, but he cannot afford to lose wages and so has to keep toiling under the sweltering summer sun near New Delhi. Ansari is far from alone. Many millions of migrant workers across India face a similar dilemma as voting takes place in the world’s biggest election, with nearly 1 billion people eligible to vote until June 1. Results are due by June 4, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi predicted to win third term.

For those like Ansari, a road building labourer from Jharkhand state earning 600 rupees ($7) a day in the satellite city of Noida, the costs of voting are high — from leave without pay, threats of wage theft and job loss to lofty travel expenses, including the expected gifts for family members. “If I could get free (train) tickets and paid leave, I would go. But since that is not happening, I will stay and hope for the best,” said Ansari, 37. “We are here out of compulsion. It is just for work ... because we could not find anything back home,” he said, gesturing to about 30 of his fellow migrant labourers, who mostly hail from the impoverished eastern states of Jharkhand and neighbouring Bihar.

All the men echoed Ansari, saying they would not go back to cast their votes this month as it would mean losing at least 4,000 rupees ($48) in two days’ lost wages and travel costs. In Noida, they can earn as much as 24,000 rupees in a month. The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to another two dozen migrant workers in and around New Delhi, with only four saying they would go back to their home town to vote. Of those four, three said their towns were relatively close so it would only cost them a day’s wage and a few hours’ of travel time.

While the number of internal migrants in India has not been updated in official figures for more than 10 years, experts say they could make up as much as 40% of the electorate. According to the latest available figures, albeit from 2011, India’s then population of 1.21 billion people included 456 million internal migrants. Their number has likely increased by another 150 million, said S. Irudaya Rajan, chairman of the International Institute of Migration and Development think tank.

“Migrants are still invisible in our country’s policies and programmes,” Rajan said. He observed that neither the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor its rivals had debated or discussed the COVID-19 migrants’ crisis in their campaigns or rallies. An estimated 100 million migrants were among the worst hit by a strict lockdown in early 2020, which led to an exodus from cities. Many workers walked home, their adversity unfolding live on television and making global headlines. “It can’t be a memory lapse. This happened only four years ago,” said Rajan.

“This just indicates that nobody is bothered about them.”

Rajan described most migrant workers as short-term, seasonal, distressed, illiterate and informal, making it difficult for them to organise and fight for their rights. He warned that without their say in elections, it could exacerbate their exploitation, and limit their bargaining power as they are left out of key decision making.

“The problem is that migrants are not treated as a vote bank despite their great contributions to the economy ... This needs to be fixed,” he said, urging the creation of a ministry for migrant affairs. Internal migration is bound to intensify in the world’s most populous nation as economic slowdown hits rural India, home to 60% of its 1.4 billion people, according to migration and economic experts.

Many, especially those under 35, flock to the cities to take whatever jobs they can — becoming labourers, drivers or helpers in shops and homes — to tap into the country’s spectacular economic growth and the prosperity of its urban areas. Benoy Peter, the executive director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development in the coastal state of Kerala, warned that people engaged in farm-based jobs could face rising pressure from climate change, which hurts harvests and fuels debt, forcing them to migrate.

He said that if there were enough well-paying jobs at home, most would not opt “to be treated as second-class citizens in the urban centres of India”. “People can live with dignity, exercise their agency if they have decent-paying jobs at their native places. But that is going to be a remote dream,” he said. In the last general election in 2019, more than 300 million people did not vote — migrant workers likely made up a huge proportion of those, according to government data.

In the first and largest phase of this year’s general election, voter turnout dipped by nearly four percentage points compared to 2019, according to data. M. Venkaiah Naidu from the BJP cautioned in an op-ed days after that voter apathy could “automatically allow others to dictate the course of their lives”.

All the migrant workers said it was neither feasible to drop everything and go home to vote, nor possible to change their voting constituency to their place of work since most of them hop from place to place doing temporary jobs. India’s election panel has been working on alternative voting mechanisms, including proxy voting, early voting at special centres and online voting.

It has also considered remote polling stations that would mean migrant workers would not have to travel back to their home district to vote.

But these methods have not been implemented due to administrative, legal and technological challenges, including ensuring secrecy of voting.

The Election Commission of India did not respond to repeated requests for comment on voting solutions for migrant workers.

Most, barring two migrant workers, said they would not vote online or via smartphone apps even if given the choice, citing chances of manipulation.

“I cannot trust (technology). My thumb needs to push that button,” said Binita Ahirwar, a labourer at a Delhi-based cardboard box factory, referring to buttons on electronic voting machines (EVMs) used in India.

Ahirwar, 32, said she was not going to go to her home state of Madhya Pradesh to vote over job loss fears. But not everyone is choosing to sit it out. For Kaju Nath, a building labourer in Noida, voting is a responsibility, and to fulfil it he said he had informed his boss in advance about taking a week off to travel some 1,100 kms (684 miles) to Bihar. “I will lose about 10,000 rupees ... but at least I will vote for a better future. There are no industries, no factories, no jobs in my state, and I need to vote to change that,” he said as he clapped cement dust off his hands. “I have to do this for my children, so that by the time they grow up they can have jobs there. They should not have to do what I am doing.”

 

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