Non-resident Indians may soon get to cast their votes and choose their representatives to state assemblies and the Parliament, for which a cabinet note on granting voting rights to Indians staying in other countries on non-resident visas is being circulated among different departments, the government and the Election Commission informed the Supreme Court today.
This, however, will cover only non-resident Indians and not resident Indians living away from their own states, who have necessarily to get back to their respective constituencies if they are to exercise their voting rights.
The EC cited logistical problems and opposed voting rights for migrant labourers at the place of their work. The government also showed no interest in facilitating voting by the poorer section.
Additional solicitor general PS Narasimha, representing the central government, told a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice H L Dattu that the proposal was accepted by the government "in letter and spirit, and a committee had been set up to devise the modalities of its implementation".
The Election Commission, which favoured the plan to give voting rights to NRIs, however, did not favour extending the same benefit to migrants within the country, which, it said, was not practicable.
''Scheme of the Representation of People Act is that a person can be enrolled only at the place where he is ordinarily resident, the question of any person migrating to a different place from his native place, enrolling himself in the electoral roll of his native place does not arise,'' the poll panel said in an affidavit.
The additional solicitor general submitted the affidavit to a bench of Chief Justice HL Dattu and Justice Arun Mishra in a public interest litigation (PIL) on voting rights for NRIs filed by Nagender Chindam and Naresh Kumar.
"After we get their response and suggestions, a final cabinet note on the subject will be prepared and placed before the cabinet for a decision to amend the Representation of People Act, 1950," he said.
The PIL was originally filed by Nagender Chindam, chairman of the UK-based 'Pravasi Bharat', while Shamsheer VP, an NRI from Kerala who took up the cause a year ago, came knocking at the apex court's doors.
Dushyant Dave, counsel for Dr Shamsher VP, pointed out, "It is good that NRIs are getting voting rights. But we must not forget about the rights of migrant labourers who have no voice."
A high-level committee set up by the EC to examine the issue of granting voting rights to NRIs had in its report suggested an, "E-postal ballot, where blank postal ballot paper is transferred electronically to NRI and returned by post by NRI, can be considered to be employed after proofing, validation of the process and pilot implementation in one or two constituencies in elections to the legislative assemblies and then scaled up to more assembly elections and finally parliamentary elections if found feasible, practicable and meeting the objectives of free and fair election.
"The committee recommends that the option of voting through proxy appointed by the overseas electors can be considered to be provided to NRIs. In order to cater to needs of all categories of NRIs, additional options of e-postal ballot and proxy voting can be made available depending upon the preference exercised by the NRI voter. In case NRI voter does not exercise any of these additional two options, then by default it will be deemed that overseas elector will cast his vote as per existing legal provisions and procedures at the polling station in India."
The EC had, however, ruled out the possibility of allowing NRIs to vote through the Internet or at diplomatic missions abroad for the time being. According to the EC, the e-postal ballot system has almost no risk of manipulation, rigging or violation of secrecy.
The court adjourned hearing on the issue for eight weeks and asked the government to work out the modalities and other aspects to allow proxy voting and e-ballots for NRIs during in the elections.
The court, however, said it cannot order legislature to make or amend a law within a particular time frame and granted time to the Centre to effect changes in statutes for extending voting rights to NRIs through postal ballots.
The development will help an estimated 25 million NRIs across the world, to cast their votes, a right that has so far been denied to them.