Is Migration one of the biggest causes behind low voter turnout in India?

Is Migration one of the biggest causes behind low voter turnout in India?

Low voter turnout in India remains a concern. The 2019 general elections saw a record 67.4% turnout, but recent phases show a decline. Inter-state migration significantly contributes to this issue, as many migrants can't afford to travel back home to vote. Economic constraints force them to prioritize earning over voting, impacting overall turnout.

Low voter turnout has forever been a concern for India. The 2019 general elections had a record of 67.4% voting, which was the highest ever. This time, instead of breaching the 70% mark, India has seen a decline in voting. If seen as per the first four phases of polling, there is already a massive decline in the voting percentage. Amid other reasons, inter-state migration and lack of economic feasibility to travel seem to be a big contributor to the low voter turnout.

Is Migration one of the biggest causes behind low voter’s turnout in India?

The 34-year-old Naseeb Paswan has been in and out of Delhi for 10 years. He works in the capital as a daily wage labourer for three months and travels back to his village in Saharsa, Bihar for the next three. Unfortunately, due to his tough financial circumstances this year, he has had to stay in Delhi for work during the election season. Saharsa saw polling on 7th May while Paswan was working at a construction site in Noida.

“I could not go but my vote had been cast I was told”, said Paswan when the reporter asked him if he had gone back to his village to cast his vote. His family told him that a few men based on his Aadhar card had arranged his vote. His sibling Manilal Paswan stood adjacent to him listening to the conversation. After a point, he could not hold back and said, “If we had the resources to feed our family in Bihar, why would we live so far away from home? This time both of us were in a huge financial crisis, my son had to get admission in high school. I didn't really have a choice. Even if my contractor would have asked me to go, I would rather earn some more money.”

For the migrants who are far away from home trying to make ends meet, voting comes way below their priority list. They would undoubtedly choose money over casting their vote if given a choice. On average, as per the Paswan brothers, the travel expense to Bihar ranges between Rs 2000-2500 per person. Needless to say, they would be unpaid for the days they do not attend work. “The amount that we would spend on going to our village solely to cast our vote is equivalent to nearly 5 days of hard-earned money. We definitely cannot sacrifice that.”

Data from 2012 shows that over 9 million people had migrated from Bihar. To address this, the International Institute of Population Sciences(IIPS) released a study in 2020. A significant finding of the study was that at least 50% of households in Bihar had one family member who had migrated from Bihar.

These numbers, as much as they indicate how big a problem migration is, also hint at the impact it could have on the country's voting turnout. Certain States, like Bihar, Jharkhand, and North Eastern States are more prone to the problem of migration than others. People leave their homes searching for work, jobs, and higher education owing to a lack of resources in their State, which impacts voter turnout as it is not economically feasible for most migrants to return home and exercise their democratic rights.

Keval Sahini(40), runs a cycle rickshaw in Laxmi Nagar. He has been in Delhi for the past 6 years. During his tenure, he has only been able to go home thrice. He works nearly 12 hours daily and can earn only Rs 300. When asked about voting, he had his answer ready. “My daughter’s marriage is due next year. If I keep finding opportunities to go home rather than working here, I will not be able to arrange funds for her marriage,” said Keval. Although he fears his name being cut off the voter’s list, he remains without a choice and says he will try to make it home for Diwali this year.

Jharkhand tops the list when it comes to migration. An economic survey of India revealed that between 2001-2011 alone, the state lost nearly 5 million of its working population. As per a 2017 report, 5% of the state’s population migrates yearly. Alone from Dhanbad, nearly a lakh people migrate to Howrah each year. While in places like Jamshedpur and Ranchi, students move out in search of higher education and jobs to bigger cities, in places like Gumla, Lohardaga, and Dhanbad, there is a higher net rate of migration, over 15%.

Nishant Singh is a resident of Jamshedpur and has been working at an MNC in Bangalore for the past three years. He moved to Silicon Valley in 2018 to pursue his graduation and has lived there ever since. “We had to move out for better opportunities. We had no choice. Staying home would restrict our choice.”

Continuing on the accessibility to voting as a young professional, he said, “In bigger cities, the cost of living is high and the pay parity is vast. Although our company did give us a paid leave on the polling day, the dates for polling in my hometown and Bangalore were not the same. Even if one chooses to go and cast their vote, the flight rates are severely high. As far as the trains are concerned, only one train runs just once a week from Bangalore to Jamshedpur, and the train journey is nearly 45 hours. It is just not feasible for a working individual to take that many leaves for voting.”

The people Mojo Story interviewed had a range of solutions to suggest to exercise their right to vote. Some believed that in a World run by technology and cubicles, it was possible to create a system by the Central and State governments to make special arrangements for those away from home to vote online. Others said that since they had been living in a particular city/State, they should be given the right to vote from there rather than travelling 100s of kilometres.

Amid polling, Assam saw an exciting turn of events. Nine trains were cancelled, and seven others terminated while on their way to the polling date late in April. Thousands of voters going to Barak Valley to cast their votes in 2 constituencies, Silchar and Karim Gunj, could not make it in time to vote. The North Eastern Frontier Railway PRO Sabyasachi De said that the delay and cancellations were due to a staff shortage and heavy rainfall.

Ahmed is a resident of Karim Gunj. He studies in Guwahati. He narrated,” At the Guwahati station, we were told that our train would terminate at Lumding, which is roughly 200 Km from my hometown. By the time we reached Lumding, it was 3 a.m., and polling was supposed to happen on the same day. I tried making other arrangements, but the rates were as high as Rs.1800/person for a car to take me there. Unfortunately, I could not make it in time, and so couldn't a thousand others.”

While several factors contributed to low voter turnout during this election, migration is undoubtedly one of the biggest.

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