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Political Inclusion of Seasonal Migrant Workers in India: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges

By Amrita Sharma, Santosh Poonia, Milind Babar, Vikas Singh, Preeti Singh & Lalit Kr. Jha

In the usually bustling street on Santacruz west, Mumbai, there is a sudden wave of hyperactivity. A number of hawkers start rolling up their plastic sheets, pack up, and run to find a safe abode for their merchandise. I turn back to find a municipality van approaching slowly. As the van turns left, within 5-10 minutes, business is as usual – close to 700 hawkers selling vegetables, fruits, and everyday utility items on a street not longer than 200 meters. What makes this group of hawkers unique is that they are all migrants to the city, coming from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Orissa, the key labor exporting states of India. Some of them have been in Mumbai for more than 25-30 years but remain foreigners to the city, struggling for an identity and basic citizenship rights. Their average day is defined by a struggle to protect their livelihood from the state, which, in this case, is represented by the civic authority, the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation [BMC]. Most lack access to basic amenities – water, sanitation, and shelter; they sleep on the pavements and are frequently crushed to death by callous, drunken drivers. While they struggle to claim a ‘human’ existence in cities, their families lose out on access to basic entitlements and government subsidies in the villages. This group constitutes the large floating population of the rapidly growing economy of India. Despite contributing heavily to its growth as cheap labor working in the construction, mining, and services sector, it gets compromised; rather, too often. They have limited voice and no constituency. Quite often, they fail to vote and participate in the electoral processes because of their high mobility.

The quantum of seasonal migration in India is large. While the official estimates provided by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) suggest a number of 15 million per year (NSS 64th round), sector wise employment estimates show that more than 100 million people move every year from rural areas in search of livelihood (Deshingkar & Akhter, 2009). Quite often, these migrant workers are away from home at the time of elections. The current voting regulation does not allow them to send their votes through postal ballots. Working in the informal unorganized sector of the Indian economy and earning meager wages, migrants find it difficult to make a trip home only to cast their votes. In cities, where they go to work, they lack voting rights. Thus, many migrants miss out on participating in a key institutional mechanism in the country, the elections, to raise their political views/concerns. They also fail to carry with them the basic entitlements guaranteed by the State such as access to low cost food, health, subsidized education, and shelter.

Political inclusion of migrants is a well studied subject in the context of international migration. Discussion on the topic for migrants within the boundaries of the nation-state is, however, rare. What shape does the question of political inclusion take in a country such as India – where people are not able to vote because of their mobility? In 2011, a study was carried out by select civil society organizations in India, led by Aajeevika Bureau, which tried to understand the nature and extent of political inclusion of migrants. Political Inclusion was defined as the right and ability to vote freely, the right to access basic public services, and the right to have one’s concerns reflected in local/state/central level policy documents. The study was carried out in 15 locations spanning five states of India – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Gujarat reaching out to 686 migrants.

Do seasonal migrants vote? 

In India, every voter is issued a voter ID, which has a unique number and it certifies the person’s right to vote. In absence of a voter ID or name in the voter list, a person in not eligible to vote. The study found that 78 per cent of the respondents reported to possess voter IDs or have their names in the voter list. Of greater significance was the fact 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. In case of long distance migrants, the percentage of migrants missing voting rose to 83 per cent.

It is notable that many migrants leave their home at an age as early as 13-14. The voter ID is issued at an age of 18 or more. When they become eligible to get a voter ID, their work life is at its peak and their trips to home short in duration. Many migrants reported to not have the time to get their voter IDs made. In some cases, attempts made by family members to get voter ID for their migrant relative were unsuccessful, mostly as ward members or the PRI representatives they approached didn’t cooperate. During a group discussion in Darbhanga, Bihar, an old lady shared her failed attempts at getting a voter ID for her son. She complained that the ward member didn’t help saying that it was no use, as her son would never come back home to vote during elections.  wItical exclusion within their

India’s three tier democratic system – where does migrant’s vote feature?

Data gathered on the question, “Did you vote in the last election?” revealed that 65 per cent of the respondents had voted in the last Panchayat elections. Compared to this, participation in Lok Sabha elections was 48 per cent (the national average voter turnout for general elections in 2009 was 59.7 per cent). We find that as one moves from Panchayat to Vidhan Sabha to Lok Sabha elections, the participation rate comes down by 10.5 per cent at each step. The difference became more pronounced, rising to 14 per cent, when short distance movements were taken off the sample. In case of long distance movement, participation in election ranges from 59 per cent in case of Panchayat election to 31 per cent in Lok Sabha elections.

Fifty-four per cent of respondents said to have returned to their native villages with the specific purpose of voting during election time. Higher incidence of return is for short distance movements, where it was relatively convenient to return, both in terms of time and money. Of the ones returning home to vote, 74 per cent returned specifically for Panchayat elections, again highlighting the importance attributed to Panchayat elections.

The most commonly cited reason for higher participation in Panchayat elections was social pressure, where a close relative or member from the same community was contesting the elections and participation of the migrant was sought as a duty towards his brethren. Further, in Panchayat elections people often won or lost by a small margin. The size of migrant streams in these areas was quite significant, thus candidates were found to be actively seeking migrant votes and pursuing migrants, not only through their families at source but also at the destination. Reaching out to migrants in cities and funding their return was found to be a significant trend, particularly in case of short distance movements. Close to 50 per cent of the respondents said that their return during elections was funded by the candidates. Migrants were also promised kickbacks as liquor and cash. During our fieldwork in Rajasthan, UP, and Maharashtra, we came across elaborate systems where migrant workers were brought home in jeeps and buses at the time of elections. When speaking to some migrants from UP in Mumbai, they revealed that many received return train tickets, while some were brought home in a Marshall (a popular jeep used in north India), a road journey that took them three days.

Political Participation in the Villages  

An important question in the study was how migrants ensured that they are politically relevant in the villages they leave behind and if they lose out on entitlements because of their long absences. When asked in an Focus Group Discussion (FGD), if their long absence from home and the inability to vote was of concern to them, one of the migrants said – “Chinta ka Vishay to hai hin, Zinda Aadmi ko maar daalte hain” (It is indeed a reason for concern, they declare us dead by scratching our names off the voter lists). Such instances were reported in discussions, on how preparation of voter lists was ridden with politics, where people were selectively chosen, or their names struck off, without explanation. This problem was more pronounced in the case of migrants. Some migrants, when asked why they returned home to vote, said that it was a give-and-take relationship. In return of their vote, they received access to government schemes. Some also expressed anxiety that if they did not return to vote, the schemes they were eligible for would go to someone else. While the study did not attempt a verification of this claim, migrants at several study locations pointed it out how the allocation of Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) houses, hand pumps, and other benefits ran on political patronage. A migrant worker due to his absence during elections had limited bargaining power with the polity at source and was in a disadvantaged situation. In Bihar, the resentment that Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) members exuded for migrants was telling. During a discussion with PRI members, a Sarpanch from Darbhanga pointed out, “this group is a nuisance, all are absent at the time of voting but are the first ones to ask questions…their names should be taken off the voter list.”

We asked a few questions related to the migrant’s interface with the State and its agents in the villages at source. A particularly revealing observation was that 89 per cent of respondents remembered the name of their Sarpanch. This was true even for workers who had been away from their village for more than 25-30 years. A good number reported to have approached the village Sarpanch for issues such as ration cards, IAY, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) payment, drinking water, (Below Poverty Level) BPL cards, and land titles/disputes.

It was visible that migrants were relatively aware and also active in getting their problems resolved by reaching out to the State at their home locations. In contrast, knowledge about the polity at the destination, and instances of reaching out to them was much less.

Asserting political agency in the absence of voting rights 

Conventional wisdom suggests that migrants have limited political influence at the destination because they do not have voting rights. This study made an attempt to identify the various avenues available to migrants in cities to raise their concerns and get their voices heard. It looked at how frequently they sought resolution to their problems and what was the preferred medium, if they chose to make demands on the city and the State.

Migrants were asked to enumerate three problems that concerned them the most in the cities and pick one out of the three which was most constraining. The most common problems referred to were harassment by police officials, harassment by municipality staff (in case of hawkers/street vendors), and irregularity of employment. Some also cited problems of shelter and water. Most migrants did not access the government health facility as the long wait cost them the day’s wages. In most cases, they turned to quacks for a quick relief. Few had access to bank accounts both in the city and at the source and a fewer number had access to the public distribution system.

They were also asked if they had taken any steps for resolution of the problems they faced on an everyday basis. There weren’t many instances where people had attempted a resolution of their problems, either individually or as a collective. Contrary to their home location, where migrants remembered the name of their Sarpanch and reached out to him/her with specific concerns, in the cities, only 18 per cent of the migrants knew who the local Corporator (representative of the local self governance body) was. Only 11% of respondents had approached the Corporator, primarily on issues related to work place, shelter, and water.

Ten per cent of the respondents reported to possess voter IDs at the destination while 8 per cent had voted at the destination. In most cases these voter IDs were enabled with the help of local leaders who were running for elections and wanted their voter base increased. There were several anecdotes on the opportunistic political inclusion efforts of political parties in cities, which carried out special drives for increasing their membership and, the migrants, as an unaccounted population, offered great opportunities.

During a discussions with migrants in Mumbai, they shared that their main concern was to earn as much money as possible and send it home – after a long day of hard manual labor they hardly had any energy left to worry about local politics – “14-14 ghante ki mashakkat ke baad kiske shareer mein itni jaan bachti hai ki ghar aur pani ki samasya ko lekar corporator ke paas jaaye…hum yehan do roti kamaane aaye hain, rajniti karne nahin” (None of us have any energy left in our bodies after 14 hours of hard labor, we have come here to earn subsistence for our families, not to do politics).

So who do the migrants reach out to in case of an emergency? When asked this question, most migrants cited the names of their contractor or their employer. It was through this group that the migrants negotiated with the State and its agents. However, in general, initiatives to solve problems, individually or as a collective, were few to come by. There were only two examples of collective action that we came across during the study, and the trigger in both cases was a threat to their livelihood in the city.

Concluding Remarks: Migrant workers and their political participation – is there a way out?

A large number of migrants are unable to participate in the electoral process, both at the source, and at the destination. In Panchayat elections, which are often a closer fight in numbers, there are special efforts by candidates, to bring home migrants at the time of elections. However, these are all instances of opportunistic political inclusion, where migrants are seen as a ready-to-tap vote bank. Such inclusion does not give them any political voice or reach to policy. During the study, one hardly came across instances of migrants’ concerns being raised by political candidates. Though migrants exhibited a relatively greater political agency at the source, the expression was related to addressing day to day concerns such as installation of hand pumps, access to IAY, NREGS etc. and not for broader issues such as fairness in the process of disbursing state subsidies, creating transparent public information systems so that their families have a better access to schemes etc. At the destination, where migrants lived under sub-human conditions, one again did not see any initiatives for problem resolution. The few instances of collectivisation that came up were mostly related to livelihood, either to demand better wages or to protect one’s livelihood. It is noteworthy that wherever migrants have mobilized themselves, it has been on the issue of livelihood, suggesting that the engagement of migrants is predominantly economic and that is how the city and the migrant both visualize it.

There is an inherent dichotomy between pursuing one’s livelihood and exercising one’s voting franchise. Dr. Jagdeep Chhokar, Chairman, Aajeevika Bureau, and an active member of Association for Democratic Reforms points out: “Being a registered voter, by definition, implies stability, whereas migration or “being a migrant” implies mobility. There is a dichotomy between “stability” for voting and “mobility” for livelihood and the choice between voting and livelihood is obvious. The question, however, is whether people have to necessarily opt between the two? And, if a solution can be worked out which would enable political inclusion of migrant workers?”

P. Sainath (2005) was the first to bring the issue of political exclusion of seasonal migrant workers in India to public notice. He suggested that election timings be made in sync with migration cycles. With the variety in migration cycles, this doesn’t sound like a realistic proposition. It would require reflection on what the possible strategies could be: Can it be resolved through a better voting infrastructure? Can the system of postal ballots be extended to the migrant community? Given the large numbers (~ 100 million voters) it would require a very high level of scrutiny and also demand a large resource provisioning. Creating electoral and political literacy and awareness among migrant communities would also have to be undertaken alongside.

[This article is based on a study carried out by Aajeevika Bureau in partnership by four other NGOs –Grameen Development Services (GDS, Grameen Evam Samajik Vikas Sansthan (GSVS), Disha, and Ghoghardiha Prakhand Swarajya Vikas Sangh (GPSVS). Aajeevika Bureau is a non-government organization working with seasonal migrants in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. For the full version of the report (with details of sources used) you would write to or visit]


Amrita Sharma works with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-governmental, non-profit initiative for providing services, support and security to rural, seasonal migrant workers, based in Rajasthan, India. She leads the research and training mandate of the organization, working as the coordinator of Center for Migration and Labor Solutions (CMLS). In her academic career, she has published on the subject of agricultural demography, institutionalization of migration and international remittance management. Amrita has a Master degree in Public Policy and Development Studies from ISS-Hague and CEU, Budapest and a post-graduate Diploma in Rural Management from IRMA, Anand, India.

Santosh Poonia works with the Center for Migration and Labour Solutions (CMLS) unit at Aajeevika Bureau. He has been with the organization for the last seven years working on its research and training mandate. Santosh has a Master degree in Sociology and Political Science. He has worked for four years with Indian Institute of Health Management and Research (IIHMR), Jaipur, as Assistant Research Officer. Email:

Milind Babar is working with Disha Foundation, Nashik, an organization dedicated to the upliftment of  internal migrant workers. He was actively involved in the data collection and qualitative investigation for the study in Maharashtra.  Email:

Vikas Singh is currently working with Grameen evam Samajik Vikas Sansthan (GSVS), Ajmer, Rajasthan, as a program coordinator. He led the data collection and analysis for Ajmer. Email:

Preeti Singh worked with Grameen Development Services, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. She anchored the data collection and qualitative investigation for the study in Uttar Pradesh.

Lalit Kr. Singh works with Ghoghardiha Prakhand Swarajya Vikas Sangh, Madhubani, Bihar. He anchored the data collection in Bihar. Email:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.



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