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Free and Fair

Odisha’s migrant households are seeing a gender-based split in voting preferences, with women rooting for a regional party while men pin their hopes on the national ones.

Aishwarya Mohanty

With a sense of economic independence through women-specific schemes and their implementation, Basanti has independently decided who she wants to vote for. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story

Kalahandi, Odisha: Basanti Sabar, 30, is a third-time voter. But this time around, as the eastern Indian state of Odisha goes to the polls in simultaneous general and assembly elections, the rescued bonded labourer living in Padampur village will make a crucial shift in the way she votes. 

In largely patriarchal rural India, the choice of candidate is more often than not imposed on womenfolk by the men in the family. On May 13, however, Sabar and other Padampur women will for the first time vote for a party and candidate of their choice—a shift that analysts believe could potentially bring in the thus-far elusive gender prism into political manifestos. 

Padampur, in the notoriously drought-stricken Kalahandi district, is one of India’s most impoverished villages, whose residents have for decades been compelled to migrate in order to eke out a living. The men migrate, but the women, who have lately discovered financial independence in Odisha’s successful self-help group (SHG) movement which offers them loans and benefits from state schemes, now stay put. 

This is where the ballot shift that could reshape the political contours of Odisha comes in. Padampur’s men have kept their hopes firmly pinned on broad-based changes such as more jobs and better incomes, which they believe only a national party can deliver. The women, on the other hand, bolstered by the tangible income accessible to them through loans and self-help schemes, are staunch allies of the state government run by a regional party.

The government’s Economic Survey 2022-2023 mentioned that India’s women-led SHGs were emerging as the world’s biggest microfinance project. According to data cited in the survey, the SHG-Bank Linkage Programme, a programme that helps the poor access microfinance through self-help groups and banks, covers 142 million families with saving deposits of Rs 47,240 crore ($5.65 billion).

A wall painted with BJP and BJD symbols in Kalahandi district. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story

The money has emboldened women to take their own decisions. “Earlier voting was a family decision but now I want to decide for myself. I am not just tending to my family but also contributing financially,” Sabar told The Migration Story, as she moulded bricks in the small brick kiln unit in her backyard.

The bricks will go into building the family a new home to replace their present thatch-and-bamboo one. “For how long are we expected to wait for a pucca (brick-and-concrete) house?” demanded Sabar, referring to an ongoing project of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre to build pucca houses for the rural poor. “We waited for a long time but no more. Now we will start constructing our own homes with the interest-free loan of Rs 10,000 that I took through the state government’s SHG scheme.”

Basanti Sabar has set up a small brick klin unit with her husband through a SHG loan she availed, to build her own pucca house. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story

The empowering route

Padampur has a long history of migration, with entire families leaving together to work at brick kilns and often getting trapped in bonded labour. Sabar and her husband too were rescued from bondage in 2017 from a brick kiln in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Once back home, the couple was unsure of its future. “We have a small plot of land where we grow paddy,” said Sabar. “Most of it is consumed at home, with little left to sell.”

While her husband continued migrating in search of work, Sabar joined a women’s SHG in 2020, the turning point in her life. “Through the group, I could take small loans for emergencies,” she said. “During my pregnancy, I availed of benefits under the state government’s Mamta scheme. I had no such security while working elsewhere.” Sabar emphasised that she would vote for a party that did not scatter promises but had already delivered benefits such as these.

Hemandri Gahir, who lives with her four children and aging parents-in-law in Kalahandi’s Funda village, echoed Sabar’s sentiments. While her husband’s job at a solar plant in Gujarat remains their main source of income, Gahir, a contractual farm labourer, last year secured a loan through an SHG and invested in goats and ducks to earn a living through animal husbandry. “In the face of our hardship, I will only vote for a party that ensures something for me,” she said. “The state party has made sure that I can do something on my own independently.”

As The Migration Story travelled across remote villages in electoral constituencies, this dichotomy in voting preferences became apparent. “As more women take charge of the home, managing financial challenges through SHG loans, they frequently align themselves with regional political parties,” corroborated Priya Abraham, a research scholar working on labour migration in Odisha. “By contrast, the men who migrate tend to lean towards national parties, majorly influenced by perceptions of fewer job opportunities in their home state.”

Experts believe that when any demographic of people votes in a particular manner, it inevitably influences both state and national politics and shapes political agendas. At around 49 percent of the total voter base in Odisha, women are an important and growing demographic, and their increasing empowerment has led to a parallel evolvement in political parties’ agendas, said Tara Krishnaswamy, co-ordinator of the non-partisan collective Political Shakti.

“Many regional parties, including those in Odisha, have progressed from thinking about women’s needs only in terms of cooking gas and maternity issues to focusing on their higher education, entrepreneurship and micro-loans through SHGs,” she said. “They are moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to women’s self-actualisation and tying their poll promises to that. However, more importantly, women tend to vote based on what is already delivered, not just the promises in the manifesto.”

Hemandri Gahir from Funda village has bought cattle through a SHG loan to sustain her family through animal husbandry. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story

Migrantless Manifestos

The migration-prone western Odisha region is politically significant for all the three major political parties in the state—the Biju Janta Dal (BJD), the BJP and the Congress. With the BJD ruling the state and the BJP in the opposition since 2019, the Congress has been relegated to a distant third. Notably, Odisha’s chief minister for 15 years, Naveen Patnaik of the BJD, has also chosen to contest a second assembly seat this year, Kantabanji in western Odisha, to demonstrate his commitment to the region.

Both the Kalahandi and Balangir Lok Sabha constituencies in western Odisha rest with the BJP while most of the assembly constituencies under them are with the BJD. The BJD has been contesting elections as an independent regional party since 2009.

While the manifestos of all the parties address the female demographic, promising strengthening of SHGs, social security for widows and destitute women and female squads for rural women’s safety, they are silent on the larger subject of migration. The Migration Story asked multiple BJD leaders what their outlook was towards the migrant voter base in Odisha, and whether they had reached out to migrant families to come back to cast their vote. All refused to comment.

BJP state spokesperson Satyabrata Panda said the structural transition from the less productive agriculture sector to the higher-income manufacturing and service sectors had not been possible in Odisha. “That is why we are still in the lower middle economy trap,” he said. “The BJP, however, will focus on quality employment opportunities for the state’s population.”

The migrant workforce forms a large part of the electoral base in the state; Odisha has at least 8.51 lakh labourers who leave for jobs from 10 migration-prone districts. While traditional migration from Ganjam and other southern Odisha districts is considered aspirational, districts in western Odisha, including Kalahandi, witness distress migration or migration forced by inimical socio-economic or environmental conditions. Most migrants of this kind head to work at brick kilns for 10 months in a year. Despite the government’s reported initiatives to regulate migration and ensure the welfare of labourers, there continues to be a big discrepancy between registered migrants and the actual magnitude of migration.

Basanti and her husband Parakhit were rescued from a brick klin in 2017. Though he migrates seasonally, Basanti has stayed in the village. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story

Whether the migrants feature at all in the poll priorities of political parties remains a moot question. Across the villages in the migrant-prone blocks of Kalahandi and Balangir that The Migration Story visited, villagers who were back for the annual Chaitra or harvest festival in April asserted that no political party had reached out to them yet to ask them to stay back or return to vote. But with elections in Odisha then still a month away, they were hesitant to stay.

“I am a second-generation migrant from my family,” said Sashi Gamang from Kalahandi’s Sindhipadar village. “Will whichever party I vote for ensure that I get a job here? I cannot put a month’s pay at stake. I haven’t decided yet, but I will most probably return to work.”

Dilip Das, chairman of Antodaya, a Kalahandi-based nonprofit working on labour migration in the region, said it was unlikely that workers from western Odisha, who often fell into bondage, would come back to vote. “Although migration has only increased over the years, politically, it is not an issue,” he said. Had it been one, there would have been policies in place to help these families.”

Meanwhile, Parakhit Sabar, Basanti Sabar’s husband, says he will continue to migrate. “No one likes leaving their family behind and travelling to distant places for work but what option do I have?” he asked. “This is the second election since we were rescued. Repeated promises have been made but nothing happens. I want to vote for a bigger national party in the hope that it will do something for us.”

For Basanti, the votary of a regional party, he said, “I would never want to influence her. It is entirely her choice.”

Edited by Radha Rajadhyaksha


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