The Right to Vote: A Voice, an Identity, and Access to social protection
Millions of homeless people are unable to vote in India as their names are not present within the electoral rolls. This is especially unfortunate because marginalised people are most deprived of resources and their voice and vote matters in electing suitable leaders. The Indian Constitution gives every citizen who is 18 years or older, the right to vote. However, despite this provision many homeless people find it challenging to register themselves to vote.
A voter ID not only helps homeless people elect the candidate of their choice, it is also an important identification document for them. With a voter ID card, homeless people can legitimise their identity in the city. These legal entitlements also make it easier for them to register for other important IDs, access social protection schemes, open their bank accounts, and so on.
For decades, YUVA has worked to facilitate legal entitlements for marginalised persons, including voter IDs for homeless people. Our work in communities focuses on building people’s awareness related to their rights and facilitating their access to basic services, and supporting them to access the same. Repeated interventions and training activities help build trust, and our empowerment processes are aimed at helping people take ownership towards accessing their demands.
The process and procedural challenges
Election officers are often hesitant to facilitate the voter ID application process for homeless people, given their insecure status. Clause 6 of the rules and regulations in the voter identity form does state that for the homeless, residential proof is not required to access voter identity card; election officers need to verify that the homeless live in a particular place. However, despite this clause, identification documents are often sought.
To apply for a voter ID, the accepted identification documents are Aadhaar card, ration card, passport, driving license, income tax assessment order, latest rent agreement, latest water or telephone, electricity or gas connection bill, etc. If the applicant fails to possess these documents, a post or letter or mail delivered through Indian Postal Department in the applicant’s name at the address of ordinary residence is also accepted. As homeless people may not have a fixed place of residence to their name, and may be subjected to repeated forced evictions, they are usually unable to provide proof of address. The Election Commission allows homeless people to get registered on the basis of proof of ‘ordinary residence’. This is clearly stated in form 6.
In the case of homeless people with no papers to their name, the situation becomes more tricky to navigate and the supportive role played by non-profits is often critical to access this entitlement. In these cases, often applications need to restate Articles 325 and 326 of the Indian Constitution, which makes it very clear that all people above the age of 18 have the right to be included in the electoral roll. Post this application submission by the applicant, often with the support of a civil society organisation, enrolment forms are given to the homeless applicants. Following this, government officials visit the ordinary residences mentioned in the forms in about a week’s time, to make sure that the place mentioned is where the applicant regularly resides. A report is then made which is sent to the tehsildar who adds the names of the homeless people to the electoral roll. It takes about a month for the voter IDs to arrive.
The ability to dialogue with the officials and build a strong rapport with them helps gain their trust and cooperation which is needed to move things along swiftly. Sometimes, however, applications may still be rejected repeatedly. The lodging of RTI applications is an effective strategy to seek legitimate reasons on why the particular entitlement is being rejected.
How voting entitlements have helped homeless people: Kajal’s story and our initiatives within a western suburb of the city
44-year-old Kajal (name changed to protect her identity) is a homeless woman who resides in Matunga, King’s circle. She lives on the footpath with her husband and daughter. Kajal took the support of our team to get her voter ID made. It took multiple letters and visits to the election office, and after 6 months she got her voter ID. In the process, Kajal had also filed an RTI, to know why her application was continually being rejected. She remembers how she and other homeless people were shooed away from election offices in prior weeks. Repeated dialogue with different systems stakeholders, as well as YUVA’s support, helped take her application ahead.
Now that Kajal has her election ID, she is able to cast her vote and also apply for other documents, such as her Aadhar card. She was able to enroll her daughter in college using her own documents. Her family has also been getting their documents in place, and taking support from YUVA as required.
In Andheri, our continuous efforts have helped an entire community of homeless people to access voter ID cards. This was an accomplishment for not just the YUVA team but also the people themselves who, for the longest time, were looking to exercise their right to vote. This has also helped them access other identity documents and services.
The right to vote is a constitutional right. Yet, it is arduously accessed by society’s most marginalised people. That is why this intervention needs critical support.
Tarini Gautam and Amrutlal Betwala, reviewed by Sunanya Deka