Migrants, and the politics of inclusion and exclusion

They form a huge voting block in Tamil Nadu, so why have political parties in the state so far failed to bring them into their fold?

According to researchers, about 51 per cent of migrant workers in the state are working and residing in Chennai, Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur districts.

Prakash Darji, 35, works as a security guard at a private construction company in Chennai. He has been in the city for two years. A graduate in chemistry, Darji knows the importance of exercising his democratic duty. When he was in Jamugurihat in Assam, he never failed to cast his vote.

“In 2019, when I was working here in Chennai, I went there during the Lok Sabha election to cast my vote. Fortunately, at the time I got my yearly leave. But now I am unable to go because of financial problems caused by COVID-19,” he said.

Asked what alternatives he expects from the government, Darji said he wanted a choice of online voting.

“The leaders are speaking about going digital. Why can’t they offer such an alternative?” he said.


“I should be able to vote just by using my mobile phone, from where I am working. I don’t trust postal ballots. I should not be forced to cancel my name in my state and get a new voter ID here. Let me cast my vote wherever I am physically present,” he said.

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on an invisible population hitherto living in darkrooms: Workers like Darji. Migrants walking on national highways, a father crying after hearing about his child’s death, a smiling girl with a plate of food in her hand… innumerable photos and videos circulated online and offline provide evidence of grave injustices done to a section of the humankind.

When Migrants Become Vote Bank

The pandemic has given political parties an opportunity to win the hearts of migrant workers – as happened during the Bihar assembly election in 2020. In Tamil Nadu, the ruling AIADMK government and opposition parties such as the DMK have announced several relief measures targeted at migrants.

“On one hand, political parties were busy with campaigning, on the other, migrant workers were leaving their destination states and returning to their homeland. Some parties and leaders personally arranged travel facilities for migrant workers who wanted to return home,” said Sivaji Kumar Kushwha, 32, from Bihar, who works in a construction company in Chennai as a daily wage labourer.

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Among those who extended a helping hand was Aam Aadmi Party leader and Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh, who even arranged a flight to bring back migrant workers from Delhi to Patna, the state capital.

Such measures brought results, in terms of increase in turnout. According to various media reports, Bhagalpur district, which has more than 49,000 migrant workers, recorded 57.04 per cent turnout during the 2020 polls, compared to 48.17 per cent in 2015. This kind of increase in voter turnout was seen across the state.

Inevitably, though, the issue of transporting migrants became politicised. When the Congress government in Rajasthan arranged special buses to bring back workers from Uttar Pradesh, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath prevented the vehicles from entering his state. Parties believed that by arranging travel facilities for migrants, they could win their votes.

“If my friend contests the election and arranges travel facilities to bring us back, I would take some of my other friends along with me and cajole them into casting their votes for that friend,” said Kushwha.

How Dravidian Parties Encouraged Migration

Kinships play a major role in the influx of migrant workers, and have an impact on electoral politics, said researcher Kishorekumar Suryaprakash, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in economics at the University of Massachusetts. As part of his research, Suryaprakash is studying the history of slums in Chennai. According to him, an influx of migrants from within Tamil Nadu led to the growth of slums in the state capital.

“In the 1960s, the DMK promised to clean the Cooum River”, which is 72 kilometres long, with 32km flowing in Chennai, Suryaprakash said. “The party implemented the project when it came to power in 1967. To clean the river, people from districts like Tiruvannamalai were brought here. About 50 to 60 families came, and settled on the  banks of the river. Most of the slums that you find in the city are located on the banks of Buckingham Canal. That was how Indira Gandhi Nagar and Sathyavani Muthu Nagar were formed opposite Island Grounds in Chennai. Kinships played a role in bringing their relatives to the city and the slums gradually grew,” he said.

The DMK later even launched a boat service on the river, to show that the project was a success, he said.

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The influx of migrants, who built huts on the banks of the river, inevitably led to disputes between the army and civilians. In order to find a solution, the then MGR government built a wall around the habitat, Suryaprakash said.

“The wall helped the people protect themselves from the abuses of military men. Then in 1985, a fire occurred. When the DMK returned to power, it built houses for the hut-dwellers. This kind of competition between the two Dravidian parties helped the place grow. Now there are two ration shops, a primary health centre, an ICDS [Integrated Child Development Services] centre, etc. Interestingly, in the 2000s, these two parties started evicting people from here and relocating them to places like Kannagi Nagar, where none of the basic amenities were in place,” he added.

Even before the fire, the city was witnessing a steady increase in the number of slum-dwellers. It was the DMK that established a slum clearance board in 1970. The board proposed radical policies, including a ban on relocating slum-dwellers and building of houses where the dwellings stood. That’s how places like KK Nagar, MGR Nagar and JJ Nagar came up.

“Because of these measures, this urban slum-dwelling population has always been a vote bank for the Dravidian parties. Earlier, the board was headed by a chairman, who would be a politician, appointed by the respective ruling party government. The chairman allocated homes for slum-dwellers and they in return voted for his party,” Suryaprakash said.

Later, when the World Bank entered the scene to help develop Chennai, bureaucrats started heading the various development boards, he added.

“There were frequent mystery fire incidents, disasters like the 2004 tsunami, and the state governments started relocating people outside the city. However, those people started renting their homes to northern migrant workers and moved out of the city. The migrant workers – both interstate and intrastate – were twice betrayed, in the source place and the destination place. So they never showed any interest in playing a role in electoral politics. Political parties too never took any steps to bring these migrants into their fold,” Suryaprakash said.

Lack of Awareness about Migrant Data

There is a possibility that political parties don’t focus on consolidating migrant workers’ votes because of lack of data. Until the pandemic hit Tamil Nadu, governments here – like in other parts of the world – did not give much thought to migrant workers and their lives.

“When migrants started leaving Kanchipuram district – walking, cycling – the state government awoke from its slumber and carried out a survey and found that the district has about 38,000 migrant workers,” said a TV journalist based in Kanchipuram.

Kanchipuram is one of three districts in the state – along with Chennai and Tiruvallur – with the highest number of migrant workers. However, even that data is not official. The number was plucked from a study titled ‘A Survey on Interstate Migrants in Tamil Nadu’, conducted by Chennai-based Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research (LISSTAR) and Bengaluru-based Indian Social Institute, in 2016, and the media and some government departments simply picked it from there.

The report claimed that the three districts account for 51 per cent of migrant workers in Tamil Nadu.

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“This is not the first report and, hopefully, not the last. In 2014, a building collapse occurred at Porur, Chennai. It was after this accident that the state government passed a GO to survey migrant workers,” said Professor Bernard D’Sami, senior fellow, LISSTAR.

Prior to this report, in 2013, noted economist J Jeyaranjan had carried out a study on migrant workers, but it was focused only on Chennai. That report said that 60 per cent of migrant workers in the city were from the northeast and east, and about 25 per cent from the north.

According to an official data from Tamil Nadu Commissionerate for Labour, the state has 24,274 registered migrant workers, who mostly work in the construction industry.

“It is the data we started collecting from 2014, after the GO passed by the government. Till date this is the official number. But migrants are not only working in the construction industry but also in hotels, textile factories and brick kilns. The district administrations are lethargic in sending those data,” an official from the commissionerate said.

“We directly went to construction premises and made migrant workers register with us. That’s how we are able to get at least these number of workers.”

Leaving aside migrants from other states, in 2015 LISSTAR carried out a Tamil Nadu migration survey titled ‘Non-Resident Tamils and Remittances’. The report suggested that the estimated number of out-migrants (interstate migrants) in the state is roughly around 10 lakh, whereas the number of emigrants from Tamil Nadu is around 22 lakh. It is possible that in the last five years, the numbers have increased.

There is a possibility that this population may have affiliations or aligns either with the Dravidian parties or other political parties in the state. If that is the case, why have the political parties failed to take into account this vote bank?

According to data provided by the Election Commission of India, the state has the least number of electors (1,76,272 voters) in Harbour assembly constituency in Chennai (out of 234 constituencies). Just for the sake of comparison, out-migrants from Tamil Nadu (10 lakh) comprise a much bigger bloc than one whole constituency in the state capital.

Lack of Voting Rights for Migrant Workers

It’s not only the labour department that has no data on migrant workers, but also the election commission.

“The inclusion and correction of voters are being done at the election registration offices, which are mostly zonal offices in case of corporations and municipalities and revenue department offices at the district level. Even they don’t maintain a proper record or have a separate column which tells that this person has applied to include his name in this constituency from the other,” said an election official in Tiruvallur district.

This lack of data is one of the reason why the migrants are invisible, said S Irudaya Rajan, an authority on migration studies with the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala.

“The lack of a coherent migration policy – whether it is for international or internal migrants in India – has been noted before. However, while the issues of international migrants are more prominent and easily recognisable – with the ECI maintaining a database of the total number of registered overseas electors in the country – internal migration remains largely undocumented and hence invisible,” he said in one of his articles titled ‘The Realities of Voting in India: Perspectives from Internal Labour Migrants’, published in Economic and Political Weekly in 2019.

While a section of the workers are seasonal migrants, they don’t show any interest in changing their voting areas. Those who are interested are unable to do so because they don’t understand the local politics.

“When the pandemic hit, some of the state governments arranged travel facilities for the migrants. The migrants who had no such facilities in their destination state, they don’t have any voice to criticise the ruling party because they are not considered as vote banks. So the political parties should include the issues of migrant workers in their manifesto and in a language these workers can understand. Then there is a possibility that the migrant workers will come forward to take part in the democratic exercise. This could also be a kind of inclusive politics,” Rajan told The Federal.

One problem, particularly in Tamil Nadu, is anti-migrant sentiments, D’Sami said. True to the claim, the state has witnessed many protests against northerners wresting employment opportunities from Tamils. There were also allegations that the BJP was trying to distribute forged voter IDs among migrant workers, so they could vote for BJP candidates.

“Parties like Naam Tamilar Katchi voice concerns about non-resident Tamils, but they don’t bother about Tamils working in other states or migrant workers from other state in Tamil Nadu who are adopting Tamil culture,” D’Sami said.

‘One Nation, One Election Card’ means a person must be granted his voting rights irrespective of their place of residence, D’Sami added.

Former chief election commissioner N Gopalaswami said that unless there is an amendment in the law or provisions are made, migrant workers will not be able to exercise their right.

“To the question of why migrant workers are hesitant to enrol themselves as voters in the destination state, they don’t want to lose their roots. Besides, there could be many other reasons. When a migrant worker from Kanyakumari is not interested registering as a voter in Chennai, how can we expect a worker from another state to register here?” he asked.

What Are the Alternatives?

The Centre has taken some steps to allow non-resident Indians (NRI) to cast their votes. An amendment bill was created under the Representation of People Act, 1951, to allow proxy voting rights for NRIs. Though the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in 2018, it has since lapsed as it was not taken up in the Rajya Sabha.

“Responding to a Rajya Sabha question in 2018 on the provision of proxy votes for overseas voters and internal migrants, the government had stated that while an amendment to the Act is underway to allow proxy voting for overseas voters, no such provisions are in place for the internal migrants,” Rajan wrote in his article.

“As of now, the only viable option is to allow postal ballots for migrant workers,” he said.

Gopalaswami, on the other hand, said they could be given a choice of online voting.

As for political parties, the DMK has taken an initiative to include overseas Tamil voters and created an ‘NRI wing’ in January 2021. As on date, this is the only Tamil Nadu party with a separate wing for NRIs.

Several countries bar foreign political parties from launching subsidiary groups on their home soil, said Dharmapuri MP Dr S Senthilkumar, who heads the DMK’s NRI wing.

“So instead of launching a separate political outfit under the same name, many political parties start a wing to include overseas supporters. Even the BJP has a strong focus abroad, except in the Middle East, which has a strong Malayali population, which opposes the party. As far as the DMK is concerned, most of our supporters live in the Middle East,” he said.

During the pandemic, the DMK helped repatriate bodies of NRIs back to the state. “It was during that time that our NRI supporters asked us to have a separate wing. The party has also promised that when it comes to power, it will form a separate ministry for the welfare of non-resident Tamils, similar to the one in Kerala. Starting the wing is a first step towards including overseas Tamils as voters. We hope that in the near future, they will be given their rights,” he added.

Talking about Tamilians working in other states, Senthilkumar said that individual candidates who contest the elections take the responsibility of bringing the workers home.

“They do it in their personal capacity. The party does not spend money on such things, because the expenditure would reflect in the election expenses. Take Dharmapuri district, for example. Many of the people from the district are working in clusters of hundreds and thousands in other districts such as Tiruppur and Hosur, and cities like Bengaluru. I have personally seen some cases where the candidates have spent their own money in bringing back their friends and supporters. They come here, stay with their families and also vote for those candidates,” Senthilkumar said.

However, on the topic of bringing the northern migrant workers into their fold, Senthilkumar said the government can create welfare boards for them but to consider them as voters – that would affect the party.

“There is a risk that we will be seen as a party favouring northerners,” he said.

But Suryaprakash has a different opinion. “All these measures for helping migrant workers are good. But no political parties think about why and how migrant communities are formed. If facilities like education and employment are provided in one’s own place, why then would an individual leave his place and look for other places to lead his life?” he asked.