In Bangalore, there’s a cheery greeting in Kannada that’s often used when haven’t seen someone in a while – addresse illa!. It literally translates to “no address”, but is a reference to not having known where someone was for a while. As I began my doctoral fieldwork in the city, a lot of people who hadn’t seen me since I moved to London said this.
Little did I know when I started fieldwork that it would become a metaphor for the work I was doing. My quest to understand politics in rural-urban migrants’ communities revealed something startling – often entire communities were not on the voter lists. In many communities that I surveyed, the first question I was asked as a researcher was whether I was there to make voter ID cards for residents.
In the decade since the 2001 census, the urban population in India has grown faster than the rural population, though urban fertility rates have remained lower (pp.32). This growth has arguably come from internal migrants, both rural and urban (smaller towns) (NSSO 2007).
For a resident in the city, access to almost any service is predicated upon proving where you live (“address proof”), including, ironically, the Aadhar card. Many of the “good proofs”, as they are known in Bangalore, themselves require proof of address or a semblance of legality in residents (water bill, electricity bill). However, poor migrants in the city live under tenuous living arrangements, often with no security or documentation. Others, live in construction sites, individual apartments or in houses as domestic help. Even migrants who move with another relative face a similar challenge – if the bridgehead himself does not have proper documentation, it is unlikely he is able to pass it on to anyone else.
Like everything else, the voter ID card also requires proof of address. However, the election rules (in the explanatory appendix to form 6) do provide a neat little exception – in case of a homeless person, a Booth Level Officer can visit the place where the person sleeps to ascertain if that is the “address”. Most voters and local leaders I interviewed do not seem to be aware of this provision.
Moreover, migrant voters face two other crucial impediments to using this exception. First, the process of adding oneself on to a voting list requires the ability to read and comprehend documentation and legal provisions. Urban migrant communities do display lower levels of literacy. My own sample survey shows that in one community, 74% of surveyed residents stated they were illiterate. Second, they face impediments with the local language. The lower-level electoral machinery and bureaucracymay not be able to communicate in the multitude of languages that migrants into Bangalore speak.
Internal migrants are affected by the choices they make, given as they remain within the boundaries of the country, and often the state they are from. Moreover, unlike the wealthy do not have access to the social and economic capital to sidestep the state. Many flippantly suggest that they can go back home to vote. However, poor migrants face significant opportunity costs to exercising their vote. If they have to travel back home they are often expected to bear the cost of transport, in addition to lost wages. In the backdrop of the recent Supreme Court decision to grant NRI citizens a right to (e-) vote, it is worthwhile to consider the voting rights (or not) of another category of migrants.