Adult franchise not universal

Published: May 5, 2009 - 14:16 Updated: July 1, 2015 - 15:26

Three fringe communities in Mumbai remain excluded from the voters' list. They cannot participate in the elections of the world's largest democracy
Gajanan Khergamker Mumbai

While India's polity slugs it out to settle scores; makes new inroads and reaches out to get a voice for their cronies, a few communities continue to remain without representation. And, for all the wrong reasons. For one, they still battle the age-old scourge - the dodgy voters' list which refuses to accept their existence and thus deprives them of a voice that the Republic of India ought to guarantee.

Hardnews takes a look at three communities in Mumbai silenced by their forced non-involvement in India's general elections that symbolises the unfortunate drift.

All in vain

Yaddi Kavita Rathod can't stop blaming fate for her inability to get a ration card for herself. "I tried very hard to include my name in the ration card, for years now. But, still haven't succeeded," she says. "If my name was included in the ration card, I could have cast my vote. Then, probably, the local politician would have tended to our problems," she says. Running from pillar to post, Kavita, a maid-servant, has been unsuccessful like most of her contemporaries to update her ration card.

But then, having a ration card didn't do her neighbour Sangeeta Hiroo Rathod any good either. The 22-year-old fish-cleaner has a ration card in place but has been unable to get her name included in the voters' list. "Kya karega, bohut kochis karke bhi koi payda nahin hai. Woh bolte hain ki tumhara kya thikana, aaj idhar to kal udhar! (What to do? I tried a lot but to no avail. The authorities say that we don't have a fixed place to call home)," she rues in a typically affected Hindi.

Apparently, even a last-ditch effort to get her name into the voters' list in exchange for a bribe didn't help. "Baaki sab ka kaise hota hai, kya maloom (Wonder how others manage to do it)," says the Yaddi as Kannadiga Banjaras - traditionally gypsies - are popularly known in Mumbai.

The Kannadiga Banjaras work mostly as domestic helps or in the city's Sassoon Docks cleaning catch from the sea such as prawns, lobsters, fish and octopus for companies who offer the service to dealers. While most of them live in the city's slums, they don't have any identification papers necessary for living in a city. So, it's difficult for their children to avail of any regularised education. And, once they turn four, the balwadis, where discerning Yaddis like Kavita admit their children for basic education, begin to ease them out.

"Mein apni bachchi ko mere jaise nahin banana chahti hoon, lekin kya karoon. Ek birth certificate bhi to nahin hai, ration card to door ki baat. School mein dakhla kaise karaoongi. Jab hum vote hi nahin karenge to netalog humko kya denge (I don't want my daughter to become like me but what to do. She doesn't even have a birth certificate leave aside a ration card. How will I get her admitted to school? And, when we can't vote, why will the politicians bother about our plight?" says Kavita.

Fight till the end

Like Yaddis, low-caste Gujarati sweepers, too, are entangled in the caste mesh. For the Gujarati sweeper who collects the daily garbage from the streets of Mumbai and comprises nearly half of the total sweeper population in the municipal corporation, voting is a right that doesn't come easy. Looked down even today by higher caste shopkeepers who refuse to be even touched by members of this caste, only voting could provide them the right to voice their dissent or be taken seriously. But, that isn't happening. At least, not so soon or so easily.

For Bhavnagar's Jethiben Parmar, who has spent more than four decades in Mumbai, 15 years in Mumbai's Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) as a sweeper, a voting right means the world. Prompt as can be, Jethi got her name included in the voters' list immediately after her marriage in Mumbai in 1969. But that was then, when things were less complicated.

Today, 40 years later, when things have got computerised, she is struggling to get her 27-year-old son Pankaj's name included in the voting list. "Nau saal se dhakka kha kha ke thak gayi hoon mein. Mein haar nahin manoongi. Pankaj ka naam voters' list mein daal ke rahoongi (For the last nine years, I have been chasing the authorities. I am tired. But, I won't give up until I get Pankaj's name included in the voters' list)," she says.

The low-caste Gujarati sweepers have been ostracised in the worst possible manner. Till date, villages in Gujarat practise untouchability where low-caste members are forced to live on the outskirts of the village and are avoided like the plague. They have a separate well for water and don't interact with others as a rule. Any transgression is a taboo. Any physical interaction calls for ritualistic cleansing.

Empowering members of this community with equal voting rights provides them the courage to fight against the injustice aimed to destroy their very existence. Also, voting rights provide them the voice with which they can protect their own social mien. But this has been decisively denied to them.

Not on the list

The worker picking up vessels filled with sand, sewage or stones at places, usually public utility sites, is usually the quintessential Tamilian. Menial jobs that require relentless physical labour like digging for hours, handling the onslaught of stench while working inside manholes to unclog them or cleaning gutter lines are handled best by them.

While it is almost always the Tamilians who put in the physical labour in road-construction jobs and menial gutter-related tasks, but they don't have voting rights either. And, quite contrary to their arduous tasks is their soft-as-candyfloss nature. Simple to the core, Annamalai, who digs on road construction sites relentlessly from 9 am to 9 pm - a full 12-hour labour and earns Rs 250 per day, doesn't know how to count.

When Hardnews asks how much he earns in a month and how much he saves, he says, "Khana peena ke saath, do hazaar bhada deta hai. Bachta kuch bhi nahin (After paying for my meals, I manage to pay a rent of Rs 2,000 per month. So, I save no money)."

So, Annamalai stays for six months in Mumbai slogging for his living and then moves back to his village Sangyam in Tamil Nadu where he does agricultural work for his family. His wife and three children live in the village. Then once again, he returns to Mumbai in search of work. Doesn't make much sense, right? But, ask Annamalai and the 20-year-old (by his own assertion) sinewy worker will say that he has been doing it for over 25 years now.

Annamalai has no idea of time or his own age. But, thanks to the din of poll campaigns all around, he knows that he has to vote. And that, voting somehow will make his life better. However hard he tries though this year, too, he won't be able to cast his vote. "Voting list mein naam aata hi nahin (My name never figures in the voters' list)," he says. Same is the story of his co-workers.

Nobody remembers

It's election time.  Yet again, members of all the three communities will be bypassed. Political bigwigs, who normally get off their campaigning vehicles to shake hands and acknowledge their otherwise lowly presence, even if it were to ask for a vote, won't stop by. And, life will go on as usual.

Three fringe communities in Mumbai remain excluded from the voters’ list. They cannot participate in the elections of the world’s largest democracy Gajanan Khergamker Mumbai

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This story is from print issue of HardNews