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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Elections, migrant workers and vote?

Umi Daniel

Another general election are on the corner and millions of poor people who have stepped out from their villages to far flung urban areas are busy working as migrant labourers. These migrant labourers ponder about their livelihood rather participating in the largest democratic right to vote. They are no doubt going to be excluded from their right to vote and have little say in the election. As per the informal estimate, the seasonal migrant in India are said to be around 100 million. It is irony that, while migration is a fundamental right of the citizen of India to move the length and breadth of India and choose their occupation, the issues of poor migrants and their participation in the democratic governance system is a grave concern. While, the postal ballot provision for the government employees, police personnel involved in election duty, armed forces guarding our borders and away from their villages are available, we are yet to evolve a system to facilitate a level playing ground for the migrant labourers to cast their valuable vote.

On a recent news paper report, the National Human Rights Commission of India has directed the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, where large numbers of Odiya migrant labourers are engaged in brick making, to ensure that these people go back to their respective states to vote. A cursory observation of the out migration seasonal and semi-permanent migrant labour will be around 2 million. Majority of the migrant workers are based in Maharashtra and Gujarat followed by Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and northern cities like Delhi and Punjab. It is pretty difficult to find out any government data about the migrant labour either at the source or destination mainly because of lack of any policy or system in place. In such case, it is a nightmare for the receiving states to identify, locate and repatriate the people back to their native place for voting. Many of the migrants come under the debt migrant system and being harbored illegally by the middleman. The debt migrant workers take an advance and move to the place of destination through the labour agent who makes it sure that the people complete their work as per the agreement. 

 In an informal working condition, hardly the people have a luxury of leaving the place of work for an election holiday which involves time, cost and uncertainty of the labourers coming back to work. The local political leaders are well aware about the issue and through the labour agent use all their influence to bring the people through investing huge sum of money. For political leaders, getting back migrants to vote is significant dividend and a win ability factor for the party and the leader to win. On the other hand, the middleman, labour contractors and the principle owner are also pin high hope on the leaders win to propel their illegal labour trafficking business and cooperate to bring the key migrant voters back to the villages. However, the principal owners have something different in his mind. In a debt migration situation where two or more family members work in a facility, the owner sends the male member to return home for voting while he retains other members of the family as collateral so that the work doesn’t suffer and the male members return is ensured.

In the past, in one of the high labour migration region of western Odisha, one of the aspirant for MLA been allegedly involved in the labour trade had won election through capitalising migrant labourers vote and money earned from the business. On the other hand, Ganjam district in Odisha which has a large migrant population working in Surat, many of the permanently settled Odia workers do possess  a voting right.  It is interesting that, during a general or Assembly election, political parties from Gujrat extend their campaign at the sources villages in Ganjam to woo the voters and their families. Despite having a strong vote bank in Surat with half a million strong Odia,  the migrant have a very little or no influence on the political parties to bring in welfare, entitlements and better services for the migratory populations.

During a recent public meeting in Odisha, the visiting Gujrat Chief Minister in his speech spoke eloquently about the desperation of youth from Odisha who are aspiring to migrate to Gujrat in search of livelihood. It is true that, Surat has been considered as one of the favorite destinations of the migrant from the coastal region of Odisha since last several decades. Most of the migrant in Surat are engaged in the textile and power-loom industries in Surat. However, the political leadership of both Odisha and Gujrat have forgotten the poor migrants who are hugely contributing to the economy of both the states. 

Last year, one of the very proactive Member of Parliament from Odisha has visited the brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and held meeting with the officials of Govt of Andhra Pradesh and civil society to advocate for better living condition, wages and better treatment to the brick kiln migrant workers. The MP has also participated in a public meeting in Western Odisha and expressed his concerns the migrants who are being ill treated in Andhra Pradesh. While the effort of the MP is laudable, his innocence about understanding the intra-State Odia migrant’s issues and particularly poor migrant workers engaged in mining, brick kiln, construction industries, stone crusher equally needs the same attention, concern and response from his own government to bring in lasting impact to the lives of the unorganised migrant workers. 

Finally, during vote, political parties do try their best to garner support and make a strategic plan for a captive vote which is crucial for their win. With little investment, no one will mind to get the captive vote of migrant. It is the sheer negligence, lack of understanding and political will, the poor dalit, tribal and backward communities who are turning into migrant workers are being neglected. Few months before, the pathetic incidence involving two of the migrants workers whos hands were chopped off by the labour contractor in the district of Kalahandi in Odisha. It is time that the political leadership shouldn’t only use the migrants vote for during every election, but start thinking about alternatives, rights and dignity of the toiling mass. 

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