The Telangana Gulf Workers Association (TeGWA), Emigrants Welfare Forum (EWF) and Pravasi Mitra Labour Union (PMLU) in September announced plans to float a political party for “Pravasis”.
Migrant workers – both internal migrants and international – have traditionally had low electoral participation, and are virtually out of the national political discourse. A group of Telangana-based organisations that engage with migrant workers, is now trying to change that.
The Telangana Gulf Workers Association (TeGWA), Emigrants Welfare Forum (EWF) and Pravasi Mitra Labour Union (PMLU) in September announced plans to float a political party for “Pravasis”. It aims to focus on the rights and welfare of domestic and international migrants, particularly workers.
The development comes more than a year after lakhs of migrant workers returned home following a national lockdown imposed to control the spread of COVID-19. Those behind the idea and experts say that the handling of the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of migrant workers, amplifying the need to address their issues politically.
Migrant workers form the backbone of India’s informal workforce, which in turn accounts for “almost 93 per cent” of the total workforce, according to estimates by the 2018-19 Economic Survey. The lack of focus on them in the national political discourse can be gauged from the fact India began registering their estimated 380 million population on a national database only in the second half this year.
Launched by @LabourMinistry, the National Database of Unorganised Workers will facilitate better implementation of various Social Security Schemes for the welfare of all unorganized workers of the country. #ShramevJayate pic.twitter.com/LzEU6E9dfT
— MyGovIndia (@mygovindia) August 26, 2021
Party for ‘pravasis‘
Representatives of the three organisations are in the process of reaching out to the Election Commission (EC) for registering the proposed party with a name that includes the word “Pravasis” or migrants. They recently held consultations in Delhi, and one of the key suggestions that came up was that the name of the party should reflect the broader ambit of covering both internal and international migrants.
“The focus of our party is going to be safeguarding the rights and welfare of migrants. We have been in consultation with community leaders from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, among other states. More such consultations will take place to firm up the structure and outlook of the party,” Bheem Reddy Mandha, president of EWF, told Moneycontrol.
The proposed party aims to hold consultation in nearly 100 districts in over a dozen states, and eventually field candidates who are either migrant workers, returnee migrants or those who work with the community. The first test of their electoral appeal could likely be in the Huzurabad assembly constituency bypoll on October 30.
Among some of the key issues which the party is looking to focus on are registering more migrant workers as voters, health and education concerns of migrant families and advocating for well-implemented social security protection.
“We are going to expand our committees through a grassroots approach. This includes representatives at state, districts, blocks and even village level. Once the formal approvals and registration are done, we will begin this process,” Nangi Devender Reddy, president of TeGWA, told Moneycontrol. He added that theirs would be the first political party in India focused on migrant workers.
Interestingly, both founders who are based in Hyderabad have been associated with national political parties till recently. While Mandha quit the Congress party in September, Nangi Devender Reddy quit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) around the same time. They were both working on issues related to international migrants within their respective political parties before quitting.
Studies show that political mobilization of migrants comes with the challenges of voting participation constraints, and bureaucratic obstacles in registering them. On the other hand, not doing so risks jeopardizing their health and social needs. Historically, migrant workers have remained outside the focus areas of most political parties because they are mobile and do not have a high voter registration.
Rahul Sapkal, assistant professor at Centre for Policy Studies of IIT Bombay, said that the manner in which the pandemic was handled has raised a lot of questions. He added that the last one year has made migrant workers realise that no one will give them their rights and so they have to make themselves heard.
“If migrant workers are coming out and solidifying their collective consciousness, it is a result of the prolonged neglect by the state. Governments and labour laws do not treat them at par with regular workers. This issue got magnified during the lockdown period,” Sapkal, who is based in Mumbai, told Moneycontrol.
“The frustrated workers are bound to start their own mobilisations. They realise that it is somewhere becoming an electoral issue, and attempts like these are being made to create a pressure group so that their voices are heard and come under a single banner,” he added.
When asked how they will overcome the challenge of migrant workers not voting from their constituency, Mandha said that the proposed party will encourage them to register as voters and provide assistance. He also added that migrant workers could influence electoral choices of their families and friends back home during polls.
Apart from this, a unique challenge that the proposed party faces is that the focus of the organisations, currently, is primarily on Gulf workers and is limited to India’s southern states. Founders say this can be overcome by engaging with similar organisations in other states.
“All political parties should know that there is a support base or vote bank of migrant workers. We want to put reverse pressure on other political parties to keep workers in mind and work for their welfare,” Mandha added. The party aims to crowdfund its running and electoral campaigns.
The migrant crisis of last year, where workers and their families travelled (many walked on foot) for hundreds of kilometers after a national lockdown was announced, eventually lasted 67 days. The crisis led to both Union and state governments announcing schemes and programmes focused on migrant workers, including cash assistance, portability of ration cards, and affordable housing.
The issue was expected to become politically significant, but it failed to get the attention it deserved in state elections like the West Bengal polls which took place earlier this year and in the high out-migration state of Bihar last year – there were sporadic mentions in election rallies, though.
Commenting on the proposed party, New Delhi-based political analyst Manisha Priyam said it is a “significant” idea which shows that the issue of labour rights and migrant workers is gaining importance. She added that the pandemic has left a “huge impact” on the poorer sections of the society and they want to make themselves heard.
“They are a novel political party that is focused on an issue – if they mobilise properly, they can have a lot of visibility,” Priyam told Moneycontrol. “Whether it wins or loses elections is different, but it will make a lot of impact on political parties. It is no longer possible for parties to only do political advertising and not respond to human tragedies,” she added.
Back in Hyderabad, representatives of the proposed “Pravasis” political party are busy putting together a plan to contest their first election for the Huzurabad bypoll. Mandha said that even if the approvals are not in place, they would field an independent candidate from among them.
Their electoral pitch is going to be that the mainstream political parties have failed to work for migrants and they must mobilise to raise their voices. Mandha added that they are going to continue with the same pitch for the next big election that they are eyeing – the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.