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Voting rights for Indian Diaspora

Voting rights for Indian Diaspora
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Ramaharitha Pusarla: Voting Rights for Indian Diaspora, the Indian Diaspora abroad is deprived of this proud privilege. Indian Diaspora comprises of...

India is currently going through the long drawn electoral carnival where almost 80.5 crore people are exercising their adult franchise. The 16th Lok Sabha elections are characterised by remarkable enthusiasm as elections so far have recorded highest polling ever. However, the Indian Diaspora abroad is deprived of this proud privilege. Indian Diaspora comprises of two distinct categories- Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Non-Resident Indians (NRI). PIOs as the name suggests are Person of Indian Origin or ancestry whose ancestors were born in India or nations with Indian ancestry but not a citizen of India and have acquired the citizenship of a different country. While NRI is a citizen of India holding Indian passport and has emigrated to a different country temporarily for a period of six months or more for employment or education or residence etc.

It sounds ridiculous that a nation that tops the global remittances with whopping $71 billion (little short of three times the money received through FDI) and an IT superpower failed to evolve a mechanism to allow 10 millions of Indians abroad to cast votes in elections. About 115 countries of the world allow its overseas citizens to vote albeit with some restrictions on the number of years of overseas stay. These include 28 African countries which are less developed. India too falls in this illustrious list after it has made amendments in the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2010 by inserting section 20A in the Representation of People Act, 1950. As per the new amendment, a person who is a citizen of India and hasn’t acquired the citizenship of any other country is eligible to be registered as a voter. They can get their names registered as voters by filing duly filled Form 6A and sending the same to the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) of their respective constituency as per the place of residency mentioned in the passport. Now a provision has been made to send the form directly to the district collector.

Election Commission provides the facility of postal ballot to ‘service voters’ that includes individuals who are residing outside India and employed in a post under government and working for the cause of the nation. This group includes members of armed forces and persons who are employed by Government and residing outside the country on government duty. Spouses of these people are also eligible for postal ballot. But persons who are temporarily out of their polling station for employment, education or working for private sector even within and outside the country are not eligible for postal ballot. Thus, the huge numbers of the Indians living abroad are denied of their franchise. Different countries across the world have adopted different mechanisms to facilitate overseas voters. These include postal ballot, internet voting, voting through proxies. Interestingly, two countries Estonia and Netherlands allow internet voting while Australia accepts voting by fax.

Even the Supreme Court in its recent judgement has directed the authorities to remove hurdles for NRIs to vote from their country of residence. But it also admitted the inability of Election Commission (EC) to allow postal or electronic voting this season. The decision was widely welcomed by Diaspora who is very emotional and touchy about the issues of national importance and look forward for greater political participation. India may allow the postal ballots at the diplomatic mission abroad as they do it for other Indian diplomats serving in foreign nations. But the whole proposition of Diaspora voting is an uphill task and jammed with impediments of huge dimensions.

As a preface to the whole process, a separate section of Overseas Electors is created and all the registered overseas voters are included under this section in the relevant constituencies. Thus, overseas voter can cast the vote in their constituency in person. As of now no consolidated voting method has been adopted by the EC for the overseas voters who are unable to cast ballot in person. Internet voting has been ruled out as it is prone to hacking. It is not possible to organise voting for huge numbers of the persons by postal ballot in consulates and Embassies as they are constrained by limited manpower and infrastructure. Moreover, it is difficult to send large number of postal ballots to lakhs of overseas electorate spread in different countries within a limited period of 15 days.

Generally the duration between the day of finalisation of list of contesting candidates and the date of counting is 18-19 days. The returning officer will require at least 2 days for printing and dispatch of postal ballot. Even staff in consulate is not allowed to cast postal ballot as it is not a workable option. Also, they might belong to different constituencies and arranging Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) for all of them is not a workable option. If the EC were to allow the postal ballot of overseas Indians, it must be able to provide 543 EVMs for Parliamentary Constituencies and 4120 Assembly Constituencies showing the ballot paper (if both are held together). In some countries there are large populations of Indian electors that it would be impossible to arrange polling on a single day at Indian Missions. EVMs are to be arranged at several Indian missions in large countries otherwise people have to drive several miles to reach the embassies. It would be very difficult to arrange for the personnel to conduct polls and making security arrangements, etc in foreign land. Though disenfranchisement of 10 million Indians living abroad is of serious concern so far little progress has been made to find out a suitable voting mechanism for this large chunk voting in absentia. Owing to large scale difficulties in opting for postal ballot the Supreme Court was convinced of e-voting as suitable mechanism provided it acts as an effective foolproof system. The Government is keen on enfranchisement of its Diaspora and actively pursuing suitable mechanisms for the same.

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