Millions Who Cannot Vote
By P. Sainath
15 March, 2004
of Indians who really want to vote in this election will not. The rural
poor, far more than the chattering classes, are the pillars of our electoral
system. The vote is the one instrument of democracy they get to exercise.
And they do that with telling effect, often using it to go out and change
governments. This time, many of them cannot vote. The timing of the
polls ensures that. It is in April-May that quite a few distressed regions
see their largest exodus of migrant labour.
Millions will be
out of their constituencies, seeking work to survive. These are not
people who can send in postal ballots. Most cannot afford to return
for the polls. If you are a worker from Orissa at a construction site
in Mumbai, it is hard for you to vote in this season. (Someone else
might vote for you while you are away though not for the party
of your choice). This is one result of early Lok Sabha polls.
are not new. That's all the more reason we should take them into account.
They have been around long enough for us to know better. It's important,
though, that distress migrations have risen since the early 1990s. And
exploded since the late 1990s, with the collapse of rural employment.
Long before the
migrations swelled to an exodus, the National Commission on Rural Labour
found (1991) there were "more than 10 million circular migrants
in the rural areas alone. These include an estimated 4.5 million inter-State
migrants and six million intra-State migrants." And the NCRL report
is outdated. It was in the 1990s that the numbers began to grow as never
Both the Census
and the National Sample Survey Organisation grossly underestimate short-term
migration. (Ironically, in 2001, such migration was so high in western
Orissa, it distorted even the main Census headcount in some parts.)
NSS data have drawn
on a strange definition of `last usual place of residence' of a migrant.
That is: "the village where the person has stayed continuously
for at least six months immediately prior to moving to the present village/town,"
where the person is counted. (NSS 43rd round.)
This excludes millions
locked into endless step-by-step migrations. People who may not be anywhere
for six months. Footloose migrants who are almost always on the move,
from place to place, just to survive. But the Census and the NSSO see
migration as a single-shot event. Not as a process. So the many moves
the migrants make are never captured.
Take the months
of April-May last year. Close to two million Oriyas were out of their
State looking for work. An underestimate, but it still gives you an
idea. Very few, though, were off for six months at a stretch. Barely
any were home for six months at a stretch. Lakhs of people from just
the three districts of Nuapada, Kalahandi and Bolangir were out. Just
for the season. Pulling rickshaws in Raipur. Slaving at brick kilns
in Vizianagaram. Working at great risk on high-rise buildings in Mumbai.
The same migrants could be elsewhere at another stage of the same season.
The way we define them gives us no clear idea of their numbers. Nor
of how many of them are denied the vote as a result. We do know the
figures are in millions. And rising.
of agriculture in the last decade makes the problem more acute. Zero
investment, collapse of employment, a rise in debt all are factors
that have pushed millions more into the footloose army. At the same
time, the towns and cities can absorb far fewer of them. There is much
less work there, too. So the pressure on the migrants to keep moving
only gets worse. Which means they go in for more and more short-term,
footloose journeys in search of work.
year, we already have The Hindu (Feb. 28) reporting thousands of adivasis
in Bolangir leaving their homes "for survival." That's in
February. What could it be like by April-May? Can these people vote?
In that season last
year, I boarded a bus for Mumbai from Mahbubnagar in Telangana. The
idea was to join the migrants leaving the district in despair and hunger.
Whole villages had seen more than two-thirds of their residents leave,
looking for work. Only the very old and some young remained. Every traveller
on that bus was a migrant wanting work or a child of such migrants.
Every bus on the route (with 58 seats), carried up to 100 passengers
or more. The season brought record revenues for the Andhra Pradesh State
Roadways and Transport Corporation there on one-way tickets (most
went back in under six months, though. Only to move out again in their
quest for survival.)
Buses plying that
route went up from one a week 11 years ago to close to 40 a week
last year. At the same time, all three trains from the region ferried
out tens of thousands more. The biggest group leaving were Lambada adivasis
deep in debt. Followed by poor Dalits. (The Hindu Sunday Magazine, June
1, 2003.) This was just the Mumbai route. People from here go to 30
other destinations ranging from Gujarat to Rajasthan. In one estimate,
over eight lakh people from Mahbubnagar were outside the district by
April. Could they vote in such a season?
This year, one estimate
looks at just Kurnool district. "Over three lakh agricultural labourers
have migrated to Guntur, Cuddapah, Hyderabad and other places of the
State in search of work during the lean season." (Frontline Feb.
28-March 12.) Again, that is a February figure. What will it be by April?
What's more it is migration within the State. That too prevents
many from voting. People from, say, Ramanathapuram, move to other parts
of Tamil Nadu during April-May. Many leave the State as well. Either
way, they mostly cannot vote.
In late April, there
will be Biharis still in Punjab or Assam. Oriyas in Andhra Pradesh,
Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. People from Tamil Nadu on the road crews of
Mumbai. Workers from Rajasthan struggling in Gujarat. Those from north
Karnataka scouring Maharashtra. Adivasis from Madhya Pradesh in the
brick kilns of Haryana. That's an incomplete list. In April-May, there
will be countless millions of them. Forced to scrape out a living away
Yet those at the
bottom do want to vote. Malari village in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, rubbed
that in during the 1998 polls. All communities had their voting booths
within a few minutes of their homes. Except the Dalits of Malari. For
them, the officials had set up a booth four km away. All vehicular traffic
was banned on election day. Even cycles. No transport and a booth
so far away? This was meant to discourage them. But it didn't work.
Of Malari's 219
Dalit voters listed at this booth, nearly all turned out. The young
assisted the old. A few in their Seventies made that four-km trek across
the fields to vote. On arrival, some found they had "already voted."
The upper castes had saved them the trouble. Yet the rest voted and
the basti rejoiced a triumph of the human spirit and democracy.
That was in mid-February.
But how many can
make that trip in late-April 2004? Will the young be around to assist
the old? How many would have left the district, searching for work during
the lean months? How many of their votes will be cast by others? In
some places, there has been `heavy voting' when no one is around.
tend to be concentrated in some clusters of villages within certain
districts. So their absence in large numbers can strongly affect some
seats. In a closely-fought election, they could make a crucial difference.
Besides, they want to vote. Many have strong political opinions and
clear ideas on whom they would vote for. But too often, they will tell
you with regret, they were away and could not cast that ballot.
How can this be
We do take school
exam schedules into account while planning election dates. And rightly
so. (Even though those schedules are still based more on a British school
calendar than on the Indian agriculture season.) Shouldn't we, likewise,
take the survival schedules of millions of poor Indians into account?
The time every rural
Indian is most likely to be in his or her village is during the harvest
season. That is their best chance of being present to vote. So, maybe,
we need to weave election schedules with regional harvest schedules.
Claims that people "are too busy" in this period help the
landlords, not the workers. We are simply excluding an ever-growing
number of citizens from the vote.
Millions of poor
Indians have already voted with their feet. They've left their
homes in despair. Forced by a system that causes them such distress.
One that tries, at every turn, to disable them and curb their democratic
rights. In the process, they lose the vote. The one tool they treasure
in fighting that system. By denying them that, we undermine them, ourselves,
and democracy too.