DORAB R SOPARIWALA
The probable answer: according to NSSO figures, the proportion of Bihari workers living outside the state is three times the national average. And not all of them can or do go back home to cast their ballots in person.Until 2010, under the Representation of People Act, a citizen had to vote in person at a designated polling booth in a constituency where he was normally resident. The law was then amended to make special provisions for voting for Indian citizens residing abroad. In October 2014, residing abroad. In October 2014, the report of a Committee constituted by the Election Commission (EC) proposed the e-ballot system for NRI voters and also suggested that proxy voting may be considered for NRI voters.
In January 2015, the Additional Solicitor General, representing the government, told the Supreme Court that the government accepted the EC’s recommendation that NRIs be permitted to vote in Indian elections via e-postal ballots. The EC is to work out the modalities of implementing this decision.
This is great news for our videshi brethren -from the banker in the City , to the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, to the clerk in Dubai and the building worker in Jeddah. It is a fact that the educated, affluent professional will find it easier to comply with the conditions of the e-ballot than the not-so-educated, unskilled worker. Nevertheless, thank you, Supreme Court.
But I wonder why the Supreme Court did not offer us swadeshi lot the same rights? The counsel for the NRIs as well as Prashant Bhushan pleaded for the facility to be extended to swadeshis. The Times of India had reported that the EC opposed voting rights for migrants before the Supreme Court citing logistical problems. And the Centre also showed no interest in batting for the poor migrant voter. Is anyone surprised?
According to another report in TOI, internal migrants make up around one-third of India’s population and are estimated to account for around Rs 1 lakh crore per year in remittances. There are prob ably millions of workers from Bihar, UP , Orissa and the northeast who work in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Punjab and other states and it would be a great relief to them if they did not have to travel to their home towns to vote.
There are an estimated 5 lakh Oriya workers in Surat alone. As an example, let us look at their current plight. These are mainly casual labourers -with no benefits such as privilege leave or LTA. If they desire to vote, they have to go to and return from Orissa by train. According to the IRCTC website, in December 2015, there will be just three trains per day from Surat to BhubaneshwarPuri -and none to Cuttack. How does one fit in 5 lakh (or even 2.5 lakh) travellers in three trains per day over a few days? And it is a 1,900-km-journey taking 35-37 hours.
Secondly , since the workers are unlikely to book online, the cheapest return rail ticket (including the `tout surcharge’ and the `baksheesh’ to the TC for the election time rush) will work out to around Rs 2,000 -no mean sum for a daily wage earner.
Third ly, most of them are unlikely to be voters in Puri, so they will have to travel to their home townvillage, which may probably take another day or more and cost more. And for this 6-8 day period (if not more), the voter will lose his daily wages. In relative terms, his monetary sacrifice is probably greater than that of an investment banker who flies in from London to vote in Delhi.
Then there are many other swadeshis who need to travel on work -salesmen, businessmen, artisans, company executives, journalists, railway workers, professionals, social workers, etc. Should they not get the same facilities as NRIs?
The turnout in elections would increase significantly in several states if swadeshis were also allowed to vote via proxy or through an e-ballot or postal ballot. We swadeshis need to tell the govern ment and the EC that they should not offer preferential treatment to 10 million NRIs that they deny to 800 million-plus swadeshi voters. And logistics cannot be an excuse for not offering a postal ballot or proxy voting to resident voters.
I am sure their Lordships are well aware that Article 16 gives all Indian citizens -resident and non-resident -the Fundamental Right to Equality .It is our right. We should not have to ask for it.
In this day and age, in the largest democracy in the world, there cannot be two classes of citizens.