This is the story of the journey of two girls: Noor Takkar and Siya Malhotra, students at The British School, New Delhi.
As part of a school-led social initiative since August, 2013, Noor taught Mathematics and English to underprivileged children once a week. It was an eye-opening experience that led her to question why these children and their families could not break the cycle of poverty. During conversations, Noor learned that the families are reluctant to approach authorities and make their issues heard. Many of them are domestic migrant workers and therefore do not have voter ID registration. This means they have no way to engage in the country’s political dialogue. In some cases, even after 20 or 30 years in Delhi, they remain foreigners at home. As workers, they contribute to the economy, but as citizens, they remain mute.
Noor realised that teaching underprivileged children only addresses the effects and not the causes of the underlying problem. The real work, she felt, consisted of breaking the social exclusion of migrant workers and thus enable them to reclaim their role in the democratic processes. The first step was to give them back the most important right of a democracy – voting. This is how Noor approached Siya, another student who felt passionately for the plight of these families. Siya, being extremely enthusiastic for civil rights and justice, felt that this was the perfect opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Together, they decided to start a social initiative of their own.
Some research made Siya and Noor understand the vast extent of the problem: there are 120 million Indian domestic workers, the majority of whom have to relinquish their right to vote since polls are held in their native place, too far away from their current place of residence. Furthermore, absentee voting does not exist in India since the Election Commission considers extending alternate voting rights to migrant workers to not be feasible.
After some more research, Noor and Siya identified that the primary barrier between migrant workers and their active participation in political decisions was a lack of awareness. But only very rarely are workers aware of the few simple steps that could give them back their right to make their voice heard. So, Noor and Siya decided to conduct a pilot voter registration drive that aimed at raising awareness among the concerned communities and providing support with voter ID registration process of workers who wished to reclaim their right to vote. This is how ‘My Vote My Voice‘ (MVMV) (“मेरा वोट मेरी आवाज़ “) was born.
Since its inception five months ago, MVMV has conducted two awareness programs and voter registration drives, processing more than 100 voter registration forms. The first drive at a factory in Kundli (North Delhi) saw a turnout of 54 migrant workers. It was a full day program starting with a PowerPoint presentation and educational videos that explained workers the importance of each vote and how it is in their hands to make the system change. This was followed by submission of documents and filing of forms. As a result of the drive, MVMV has been able to provide eight migrant workers with their voter ID cards and many others are on the way.
On April 23, 2017, the day of Delhi municipal corporation election, Noor and Siya’s vision became a reality when five migrant workers cast their votes. Noor and Siya accompanied the voters to the polling station and were to solve some unexpected complications as their voters’ names were not listed as part of the admitted voters. This was because they were new voters and had received their voter ID cards only a few weeks back. Noor and Siya knew it was too important a moment and did not give up. After the two girls’ persistent inquiries, the workers were sent to a computer booth where the election ticket was finally issued. The hurdles, the persistence, and the effort seemed irrelevant compared to the final achievement. The freshly inked fingers and the smile on the faces of the workers as they came out of the booth made everything worth it.
But that was only the beginning. On May 6, 2017, Noor and Siya conducted their second voter registration drive at AktivOrtho, a rehabilitation and fitness centre in South Delhi. They only expected 15-20 people, but it turned out the workers brought their family members and friends. Finally, there were more than 80 people attending the awareness program, 66 of whom filled out voter registration forms. Surprisingly, not just workers, but also physiotherapists and managers filled the registration forms. Domestic staff from the neighbourhood also heard about the drive and showed up. The response was overwhelming. The centre managers, physiotherapists, and even a guest from the centre started helping the girls.
After the drive, the MVMV team went through the rigour of completing any missing document by following-up with the workers and segregating the forms based on the constituencies. Accordingly, they approached the concerned Electoral Registration Officer’s (ERO’s) office along with the migrant workers. So far, they have been able to procure 33 migrant workers their voter ID cards and are hopeful of more in the near future.
Noor and Siya’s endeavour is to achieve financial independence by raising sufficient funds through donations to take care of the necessary expenditure for ‘My Vote My Voice’. Since, as minors, Noor and Siya are not in a position to make their project officially recognised, they decided to take on this project under the aegis of Bhai Sahib Dittamal & Sons Charitable Trust. MVMV has greatly benefitted from this NGO, especially in administrative and organisational support.
MVMV is already changing lives. Now, Noor and Siya realise that to sustain its momentum and to grow further, a clear strategy is key. For the time being, they have decided to concentrate on the Delhi-NCR region, where they have already been approached by a church in South Delhi and the National Association for the Blind (NAB) at RK Puram where they hope to conduct the following voter registration drives. They are also aiming to integrate more students as volunteers in the project.
Both Noor and Siya are fully committed to MVMV as a movement to empower domestic migrant workers by helping unite them as a strong political voice, and they firmly feel that broadening access to the most fundamental political institution of all – voting – is the only way India will ever be able to create a truly comprehensive policy that reflects the diverse needs of all.