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

About 75,000 workers in district are migrant labourers and 63,000 of them eligible voters

By Ajit Panda
Published: Tuesday 02 April 2024
Children and a few elders of Nangalghat village of Sinapali block in Odisha. Other members of the family have migrated to work in brick kilns. Photo: Ajit Panda

With the general election looming in the coming months, a growing concern has emerged regarding the participation of thousands of Odisha’s migrant workers in the electoral process. Government records, reflecting the registration of migrant returnees following the declaration of COVID-19 lockdown, revealed a stark reality in Nuapada district. 

According to data entry operator of the state health department who registered the returnees, approximately 50 per cent of the district’s main workers — around 75,000 in numbers — are migrant labourers who venture out every year to different corners of the country in search of employment.

Analysing this data further uncovers a troubling fact: Around 63,000 of these workers are eligible voters, with the majority unlikely to return to their villages to cast their votes.

While the villagers ensure their participation in the village Panchayati polls, the enthusiasm is missing during the Lok Sabha elections.

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

Mohanlal Chinda is a voter in Khurd Sikuan village, Khariar Constituency. He is employed in a brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh. “I wish I could return to my village and vote, but it is not possible. First, my employer would not allow it, and second, I need at least Rs 2,000 for the trip. Who would provide this amount and convince my owner to allow me to leave?” he asked.

Bipin Suna (45) of Alim Village of Narla block, Kalahandi district is willing to spare the money to travel back home. Suna went to Kochi, Kerala, with six other workers last December to work on a construction site. “I will pinch pennies to make the trip back home. The villagers had a meeting in the village before the election to decide who to vote for,” he said.

Suna also claimed to be a prominent figure in his village and stated that his presence was required during voting. “But no party leader has contacted me yet,” he added.

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

Jugeswar Nag from Mahagaon village in the same block was one of the people who accompanied Suna to Kochi. He doesn’t agree with Suna about returning home to vote.

“I am 63 years old. A government official my age enjoys his retirement at home, but the poor have no choice but to travel far away to support their families. Why should I spend Rs 2,000 to go to the village only to cast my vote?” Nag questioned. 

In Kampur village in Nuapada, out of total 1,200 voters, over 100 are working in different states at brick kilns, construction sites, sawmills and cloth mills. Hath Hamir Singh Deo, a village leader, says none of them will be able to vote.

“Migrant labourers lose their voting rights because the current voting system does not allow them to vote by mail. If such a provision had existed, it would have encouraged migrants to vote,” said Hitesh Bagartti, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader. He is also a former member of the Odisha Legislative Assembly from Khariar. 

Bagartti said he was approached by 21 migrant workers of Ghatmal Gram Panchayat of Nuapada district working in a brick kiln in Sangareddy district of Telangana for help returning for voting.

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

“More than 200,000 migrant workers leave Balangir district each year, half of whom are eligible voters. Sadly, they won’t be able to join in the grand festival of our democracy,” said advocate Bishnu Sharma, Kantabanji city. He has been involved in addressing migrant issues for the past twenty years.

“I had drawn the attention of the Election Commission during the last general election to issue directions to the district authorities to arrange for migrants to return and vote. The district collector, Bolangir, had appealed to the labour contractors, which resulted in the return of about 7,000 migrants to cast their votes,” added Sharma. 

The advocate recommended that destination state governments register migrants, particularly those in industries like brick kilns and instruct employers to grant leave and offer financial support for travel to vote.

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