In Odisha, turnout suffers in districts home to migrants despite promise of goodies, travel fare

Lowest turnout in Berhampur in Ganjam district, CM’s home turf, due to large-scale migration to other states, say experts

Voters in front of the polling booth in Behrampur, Odisha. Photo: Author provided

Ragunath Panigrahy from Goudgaon village in Odisha’s Ganjam district was working as a construction labourer in Chennai for the last five years. Around a week ago, he had returned to his village with an aim to exercise his democratic right on the twin elections held for state assembly and Lok Sabha in Odisha.

The first of the four phase elections for four out of 21 Lok Sabha and 28 out of 147 assembly segments was held on 13 May, 2024. The first phase elections for the southern Odisha Lok Sabha seats, including constituencies with high migrant populations like Berhampur, Nabarangpur, Koraput and Kalahandi, have been completed.

As per the preliminary official report, 63 per cent polling was estimated in these four parliamentary seats, while Berhampur, comprising seven assembly seats in Ganjam and Gajapati districts, recorded 63 per cent of over 1.6 million voters. In 2019, the voter turnout in Berhampur was 65.9 per cent. 

The lowest turnout in Berhampur in Ganjam district, the home turf of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, is due to the large-scale migration of the people to other states to eke out their livelihood, said the poll observers.

An unofficial source said that over 800,000 people have migrated to other states in cities like Surat, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and some in Kerala to eke out their livelihoods.

Srikant Padhi, a BJP leader who was motivating the state’s voters before the election date, said most of them did not come to vote. While several of them did not want to travel such a long distance, some others were not interested in voting, he added.

Ramahari Dora of Gokarnapur, who worked in Surat and came to vote, also acknowledged that several of them stayed in Surat and haven’t returned. “They had came in April for Visubha festival and returned in the last week of the month.”

Like Panigrahy and several others who have returned to their native villages to vote, as many as 70,000 fisherfolk from Gopalpur and Chhatrapur assembly segments under Berhampur, who worked in the southern Indian states, have also come back.

“I, along with some others, have come to the village due to the vote and will return to the workplace very soon, as the first phase election is over,” said Panigrahy.

More migrant workers are likely to return to their villages in Ganjam district in the coming days, with the election to be held in Aska, another Lok Sabha seat and seven assembly seats under it, in the second phase on May 20, 2024. Aska Lok Sabha constituency has a larger population of migrants than Berhampur, said JK Baral, former vice chancellor of Berhampur, who was one of the editors of a book Election Politics and Voting Behavior in India.

Jayant Kumar Mohapatra, also a former vice chancellor of Berhampur University, said the migrant workers in Odisha, especially in Ganjam and Kalahandi, have played a crucial and decisive role in all the elections. The candidates have also left no stone unturned in their efforts to woo these voters.

Before the elections were announced, the leaders of the different parties had visited their workplaces outside the states and appealed to them to return to their native villages during the elections and vote for them. They have been offered a range of goodies, including free travel to their native villages. This time, the candidates of the Biju Janata Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had visited Hyderabad and also requested them to come to vote.

Thousands of migrant workers have answered this call and returned to their villages in Ganjam. They have stayed back to exercise their franchise. Those who are yet to come have been contacted by the supporters of different candidates through WhatsApp or video calls.

A migrant worker in D Nuapali in Khallikot block said around 300 people of his village are working in cities like Surat, Mumbai and Chennai, and they come home for every election, including Panchayat polls.

During the campaign, BJP and Congress used the migration issue in these districts to sway the voters towards anti-incumbency. “As the Naveen Patnaik government Odisha failed to provide jobs to the youth, they were forced to migrate to other states to eke out their livelihood,” said Hemant Biswas Sarma,  chief minister of Assam at an election rally at Khallikot in Ganjam.

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