The last time Vishnu Tavudu went to the polling booth was 26 years ago. He vividly recalls the days when Telugu Desam leader N.T. Rama Rao held sway over the people in his village on the Andhra Pradesh-Orissa border.
This 86-year-old has not cast his vote since, as his family took up construction work in various cities for survival.
He is one among several thousand migrant labourers living in makeshift camps along Chennai’s famed IT Expressway, who are most likely to be left out of the electoral process.
“Even if we want to go back home and vote, getting leave is difficult,” says Sharath Kumar, a migrant from Kendrapara district in Orissa. An ardent supporter of the Biju Janata Dal, he says he cannot afford a train journey now. “It takes Rs.1,000 to go on a trip to my town and come back. It takes me five days of toiling in the sun to earn it back,” he says.
More than two lakh migrant workers have been found living in the city and its suburbs in a survey recently carried out by the Unorganised Workers Federation. “Most of them would not return home to vote as it would affect their livelihood,” says Geetha Ramakrishnan, the federation president. “Introducing the postal ballot paper facility is the best way to make sure they get to vote,” she suggests.
Efforts to enroll these migrant workers in the electoral rolls in Chennai have failed. “Local authorities told us Andhra and Orissa people could not vote in Tamil Nadu,” says T.K. Elumalai of the Rural Development Trust, a non-governmental organisation.
He says there are many workers who have made the labour camps their homes for over five years now and yet have no entitlements.
“Analysis of National Sample Survey data shows post-1993 the trend of long-distance migration has increased sharply,” says Professor K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
April-May is the lean season when there are no agricultural jobs in rural areas, forcing several lakhs of people to migrate to the cities.
Chief Electoral Officer Naresh Gupta told The Hindu that inclusion of the names of migrant workers in electoral rolls here was possible only if they could be established as the ordinary residents of the area. “But the problem is who will vouch for migrants?” he asks.
If the migrant workers comprise a fairly significant number, then some arrangements can be made to ensure they get a chance to vote, he says.
However, officials are hesitant to take up this work as there is the fear of impersonation, he adds. “Earlier Sri Lankan refugees had got enrolled posing as local residents. We have to be cautious of such misuse,” he says. Also, the postal ballot facility is extended only to electors employed in the defence services and those on election duty, he says.
Emphasising the crucial role played by the rural voter during elections, Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of Association for Democratic Reforms, suggests that the Election Commission can come up with a voter ID card easily transferable across constituencies. “A democracy can be successful only if every citizen gets to exercise his or her franchise,” he says.
(Originally published in The Hindu, Elections 2009 special page, April 26, 2009)