Voting without voters: Bihar migrant workers forced to sacrifice ballot rights due to financial strain

Require special provisions, free trips home to participate in democratic process

By Mohd Imran Khan
Published: Thursday 28 March 2024
With meagre wages, the prospect of undertaking a costly journey home poses an insurmountable challenge for migrant workers. From L-R: Jai Prakash Yadav, Sanjay Jha, Shabbir Sheikh and Sefayat Hussain. Photos: Mohd Imran Khan

As India gears up for the Lok Sabha Election 2024, a significant segment of the electorate finds itself facing an unexpected barrier: financial constraints preventing migrant workers from making the journey back to their hometowns to cast their votes. Despite their eagerness to participate in the democratic process, the harsh realities of economic hardship is rendering this fundamental right out of reach for many.

With meagre wages, the prospect of undertaking a costly journey home poses an insurmountable challenge for these migrant workers. For many, the choice between earning a livelihood and participating in the electoral process becomes a stark reality, with economic exigencies dictating their decisions.

Sanjay Jha, a migrant worker, is upbeat about the Lok Sabha elections being held in April-May and is keen to exercise his voting rights. However, the 30-something-year-old works as a security guard at an apartment building in Mumbai, Maharashtra and is unlikely to visit his native village in Bihar for it again. 

Read more: No elixir for rural India: Union Budget 2023-24 has very little to offer the rural population; here’s why

Jha recalled that he failed to vote last time  during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls because he could not manage to travel back to his Rupauli village in the Runnisaidpur block in Sitamarhi district in Bihar and expressed helplessness for not participating in the festival of democracy. 

“Everyone wants to vote. I am really eager to vote; this is my fundamental right. However, due to a financial crunch, I doubt I will do so. I am struggling to earn a livelihood for my family and somehow surviving after working hard for twelve hours every day,” he said. 

Jha earns Rs 15,000 every month and spending Rs 5,000 to 6,000 to go back home just to vote is unthinkable. “This is a huge amount of money for me. If I could afford the travel costs, there would be no issue. I am not alone; most of the aparwasi majdoor (migrant workers) have been facing this reality that forces them not to vote,” he pointed out. 

Thousands of migrant workers like Jha face this issue every time during elections and do not get a chance to exercise their right to vote. 

Shabbir Sheikh, a labourer at a marble shop near Goregaon in Mumbai, has a similar story to Jha’s. “Migrant workers do not have the extra money to travel home to vote. We have to work hard just to provide for our families,” he said.

Sheikh is in his 40s and hails from a village in Thakurganj block in Kishanganj district, Bihar. Even back in his village, his family does not own any land or a concrete house. 

Read more: Vote for 2024

He admitted that he wants to vote if there was a facility to visit his village free of charge and was not aware if there are arrangements for people like him to vote locally. “My family of six can’t afford to visit our village more than once a year, as it costs at least Rs 5,000 for the travel. For someone who earns Rs 15,000 per month, this is a huge amount of money,” Sheikh said.

A young migrant worker, Sefayat Hussain, a resident of a village in Bahadurganj block in Kishanganj district, Bihar, also pointed out that trains were expensive. “I work in Mumbai and after paying for living expenses and sending money to my family, I hardly save anything,” he said. 

With no work available near his home, Hussain was forced to migrate. “Why else would I leave my family back home and travel such a long distance way for a low-paid livelihood,” he said. 

Poor migrant workers from underdeveloped areas are forced to move far away in search of jobs, and receive no help from authorities to facilitate their return home for voting, rued Harendar Mandal, a resident of Dumaria village in Murliganj block in Madhepura district in Bihar.

“We are forced to move hundreds of kilometres away from flood-prone areas in search for work. Why is the government not doing anything to facilitate our voting back home? After all, we have equal rights like any other but are deprived of voting due to a lack of money to travel,” said Mandal, who works at a garment factory in Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu. 

Koshi and Seemanchal regions — comprise nearly a dozen districts including Katihar, Purnea, Araria, Kishanganj, Madhepura, Saharsa, and Supaul — are the hubs of migrant workers due to a high rate of poverty, an official from the state labour department said on condition of anonymity. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of migrant workers returned home to these regions, facing immense pain, struggle and misery during the arduous journey back home. 

Read more: 2024 Lok Sabha polls: With almost 50% electorate, women voters to drive elections this year

Jai Prakash Yadav, a migrant who sells fruits on the pavements in Mumbai, visited his village Mainadih in Kateya block in Gopalganj district, Bihar in March 2024 to attend a marriage. “I can only afford to visit the village next year now,” he said, expressing helplessness at his financial constraints.  

The authorities should make special arrangements for migrant workers or free traveling coupons to cast votes, Yadav and Jha opined. 

According to a senior officer of the Bihar State Election Commission, the return of thousands of migrant workers to the state caused an increase in the voting percentage in the Bihar assembly elections in October-November 2020, particularly in districts with a higher percentage of returning migrant voters. The increase in voters was primarily due to the return of migrant workers, who would not have been present for voting under normal circumstances. 

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