S Y Quraishi writes: EC's initiative to enfranchise migrant voters a step in right directionPremium Story

The Indian Express | 2 weeks ago | 17-01-2023 | 11:45 am

S Y Quraishi writes: EC's initiative to enfranchise migrant voters a step in right directionPremium Story

One of the significant features of India’s electoral record has been its progressive betterment on two major counts — in registering eligible citizens as electors, and achieving increased participation of electors in voting. While only 17 per cent were registered and 45 per cent of them turned out to vote in 1951 in India’s first general election, in 2019, India’s latest general election, over 91 per cent of its eligible citizens were registered with 67 per cent of them coming out to vote, which is the highest voter turnout in the nation’s history.It is, however, worrying that a third of the eligible voters, a whopping 30 crore people, do not vote. Among the many reasons, including urban apathy and geographical constraints, one prominent reason is the inability of internal migrants to vote for different reasons.The Election Commission had earlier formed a “Committee of Officers on Domestic Migrants” to address this issue. The Committee’s report submitted in 2016 suggested a solution in the form of “remote voting”. On Monday, to further address this serious problem, the EC invited representatives from all recognised national and state political parties to discuss the legal, administrative, and statutory changes to resolve the issue. The discussion took place in the presence of a technical expert committee. It is important to recall that the last major decision about the voting system was the introduction of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), with the consensus of all political parties in 2010.The consensus approach is imperative not only to keep intact the democratic heritage of the Commission but to help further entrench its popular trust and institutional integrity, which, in recent times, have been noticed to be in peril.The Constitution guarantees freedom of movement to every citizen and freedom to reside in any part of the country. However, migrant workers, especially circular or short-term migrants, constituting tens of millions of citizens are some of the least represented groups in the ballot. The issue of disenfranchisement faced by migrant workers is not one arising out of deliberate denial of the right to vote, but for lack of access to vote. The Supreme Court, in a series of cases, has conclusively interpreted the freedom to access the vote as within the ambit of Article 19(1)(a).According to the 2011 Census, the number of internal migrants stands at 450 million, a 45 per cent surge from the 2001 census. Among these, 26 per cent of the migration (117 million) occurs inter-district within the same state, while 12 per cent of the migration (54 million) occurs inter-state. Both official and independent experts admit that this number is underestimated. Short-term and circular migration could itself amount to 60-65 million migrants, which, including family members, could approach 100 million in itself. Half of these are inter-state migrants.The root cause of the migrant voters’ issue is that the individual’s inalienable right to vote is conditioned by a rather strict residency qualification. As a consequence, it tends to disenfranchise the migrant population. In the survey report, ‘Political inclusion of Seasonal Migrant Workers in India: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges’ by Aajeevika Bureau, it was found that “close to 60 per cent of respondents had missed voting in elections at least once because they were away from home seeking livelihood options”.Most migrant voters have voter cards for their home constituency — 78 per cent, according to a 2012 study. Most cannot commute to their home states on polling day. One survey shows that only 48 per cent voted in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when the national average was 59.7 per cent. These patterns have stayed consistent. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, major sender states such as Bihar and UP had among the lowest voter turnout rates at 57.33 per cent and 59.21 per cent respectively, while the national average was 67.4 per cent.Although electoral laws let people register at their place of “ordinary residence”, most face difficulties to get residence proof. Moreover, many migrant voters may not be as intensively involved in the political affairs and interests in their host locations as they are in their home locations. There is a clear trade-off. Not registering at the host location will lead to a lack of interest of political parties in providing facilities to them. The law should provide them with the option to choose the place for registration.What is the way out?Section 60(c) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 empowers the Election Commission of India, in consultation with the government, to notify “classes” of voters who are unable to vote in person at their constituencies owing to their physical or social circumstances. Once notified, the voters are eligible for the ETPB system (Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System).In the 2019 general elections, the ETPB system was accessed by 18 lakh defence personnel across the country. In 2019, in the backdrop of a PIL before the Supreme Court, a bill was floated to extend a similar remote voting possibility to over 10 million adult NRIs in order to “boost their participation in nation-building”. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, more than 28 lakh votes were received via postal ballots.In the existing system, remote voting within the constituency by voting via postal ballot is available to senior citizens, people with disabilities, and Covid-affected personnel. The postal ballot voting outside the constituency is available only to service voters, persons on election duty and persons on preventive detention.The Indian migrant worker too deserves the secured right to have access to vote through some mechanism.The Election Commission has proposed the use of remote voting for migrant workers wherein a modified version of the existing model of M3 EVMs will be placed at remote polling stations. In fact, the Electronic Corporation of India Ltd. has already developed a prototype of a Multi-constituency Remote EVM (RVM) — a modified version of the existing EVM which can handle 72 constituencies in a single remote polling booth. Technical details will be available only after the crucial demonstration.I hope the meeting on Monday proves to be a turning point in resolving the migrant voting issue once and for all. The task is daunting. Getting political parties to agree on a “remote” machine is a tall order in view of the persisting questions even about the existing stand-alone EVMs.I wish EC success in its stated objective of “finding a technological solution which is credible, accessible and acceptable to all stakeholders”. Acceptable: That’s the keyword that must be respected.The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and author of An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election

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