Voting without voters: In Uttar Pradesh, areas with low turnout are hubs of migrant workers

EC plans to reach out to migrant workers via postcards to encourage them to vote, but it may be too little, too late

By Vivek Mishra
Published: Wednesday 03 April 2024
A computer center in Raniyapur, Shravasti, to assist migrant workers and local labourers with digital paperwork. The area is predominantly inhabited by the Tharu tribe. Photo: Vivek Mishra / CSE

Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of voters in the country but has a low voter turnout, Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar recently pointed out while reviewing election preparations in the state. While the Election Commission (EC) has devised a plan to encourage voters to exercise their franchise in the upcoming general elections, the steps may be too little, too late. It is also interesting to note that most regions with low turnout in the last Lok Sabha polls are hubs of migrant workers. 

Previously, Down To Earth reported that a considerable portion of UP’s electorate will be absent during the upcoming seven-phase Lok Sabha elections scheduled between April and June 2024. Migrant workers who visited their villages for the festival season will now only be able to return for paddy transplantation next in the monsoon season.

Read more: Voting without voters: Uttar Pradesh migrant workers to be home for paddy transplantation next, may skip Lok Sabha polls

The EC’s Turnout Implementation Plan (TIP) has identified 22 districts in UP where voters will be encouraged to vote as frequently as possible.

During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, UP recorded less than 60 per cent voter turnout. The districts with low turnout have a large number of migrant workers who work in other states from March to June.

In 2019, there were 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state with less than 55 per cent voter turnout. These include Phulpur (48.57 per cent), Kanpur (51.39 per cent), Allahabad (51.75 per cent), Shravasti (52.02 per cent), Gonda (52.11 per cent), Dumariaganj (52.26 per cent), Pratapgarh (53.36 per cent), Bhadohi (53.45 per cent), Lucknow (54.78 per cent), Amethi (54.05 per cent), Sant Kabir Nagar (54.15 per cent), Ballia (54.35) and Kaushambi (54.56 per cent).

At the same time, some Lok Sabha seats with less than 60 per cent voting were Jaunpur (55.77 per cent), Sultanpur (56.37 per cent), Unnao (56.47 per cent), Fatehpur (56.79 per cent), Shahjahanpur (56.15 per cent), Rae Bareli (56.34 per cent), Robertsganj (57.37 per cent), Bahraich (57.24 per cent) and Basti (57.19 per cent)

Azamgarh (57.56 per cent), Deoria (57.9 per cent), Varanasi (57.13 per cent), Akbarpur (58.13 per cent), Jalaun (58.49 per cent), Etawah (58.52 per cent), Hardoi (58.54 per cent), Ghazipur (58.88 per cent), Gorakhpur (59.81 percent) and Faizabad (59.69 per cent) were also included.

Data collected during the COVID-19-induced lockdown showed 4 million people returned to UP. The highest number of migrant workers were from Terai and Purvanchal districts.

Read more: Voting without voters: Migrant workers in Odisha’s Nuapada unable to afford trip home to cast ballot

In the previous Lok Sabha elections, most districts in Western Uttar Pradesh saw high voter turnout, with only Ghaziabad at 55 per cent. However, districts in the Terai and Purvanchal regions had a lower turnout. Hence, there’s a focus on increasing voter participation in these areas.

Workers have begun to form lines at Gonda district’s railway station on their way to other regions for work. The station serves as a junction from which workers can travel to cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Lucknow and there is a high rate of migration in the district, said Shivam Shukla of Chhiras Shukulpurwa village in Colonelganj under Kaiserganj Lok Sabha seat. 

Kaiserganj saw 54.39 per cent voter turnout in 2019. 

Harishchandra from the same village last voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “I am in the village for the holidays. I go to find work in states like  Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. However, many migrant workers from here travel to Ganganagar, Rajasthan, for kinnow packing, or to other locations for fruit packing and other construction work,” he said.

Contractors hire all available workers from a village for three to four months at a time, explained Harishchandra.  

Narendra Kumar, another labourer from the village, also expressed his inability to participate in the Lok Sabha elections.

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

In districts like Sitapur, Balrampur, and Lakhimpur Kheri, migrant workers also expressed their inability to participate in the Lok Sabha elections. Many of them are overworked and their wages are often withheld by contractors until the work is completed. This prevents workers from leaving their jobs to go anywhere, including to vote.

Bechelal Jaiswal, from Mukeriya village in Bahraich, works in railway line construction from Ahmedabad to Mumbai in Bharuch, Gujarat. “All the work is contracted and workers have to follow the contractor’s instructions. Workers feel exploited as they lack representation or support from any organisation. No political party pays attention to us,” he said.

Residents from Terai and Purvanchal villages said most of the workers now get work only through contractors.

Migrant worker Ramesh Gautam explains that March to June is crucial for him as he finds work outside during this period. After that, he has to work in the fields during the rainy season. “If the voting took place after June or July, I would definitely participate,” he said.

This reporter spoke with a group of five workers from Bihar, currently working in cotton, mattress, and quilt making in Gonda district. Mohammad Israel, one of them, mentions that he frequently travels to different states for work. 

When asked about voting in the Lok Sabha elections, he explains that there are no job opportunities in his village, so he can’t leave his work to go back. “I can’t go home to vote by paying the fare for the travel,” he said. 

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

The EC has announced plans to focus on migrant workers in the upcoming elections. Assistant Election Officer Chotelal from Shravasti stated that they are preparing a list of migrant workers and will contact them to encourage voting. 

A strategy involving postcards is also in place to reach out to migrant workers. However, the challenge lies in the fact that most migrant workers change their location every few months, making it uncertain how effective this approach will be.

While there’s hope that voting percentages may improve in areas with historically low turnout, the reality is that many migrant workers will be working outside their home districts between March and June. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to return to their villages or cities to vote in the Lok Sabha elections 2024.

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