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Daily Current Affairs 28.03.2022 (The era of an unemployed India, Poverty rose but income inequality fell, India’s ‘space economy’ valued at ₹36,794 crore, Modi pitches for ‘local for global’, SC seeks foolproof norms to identify STs, States can identify minorities: govt., The move to ease voting for overseas citizens)

Daily Current Affairs 28.03.2022 (The era of an unemployed India, Poverty rose but income inequality fell, India’s ‘space economy’ valued at ₹36,794 crore, Modi pitches for ‘local for global’, SC seeks foolproof norms to identify STs, States can identify minorities: govt., The move to ease voting for overseas citizens)

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1. The era of an unemployed India

There are many indices of proof that seriously contradict the tall claims of employment generation in India

Reports on and the visuals of the recent agitations by railway job applicants reveal a widespread problem of massive job insecurity among India’s youth. Alarming figures of unemployment have been recurrent even before the huge dislocation unleashed by lockdowns imposed in 2020-21 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much before the pandemic, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) reported a 6.1% unemployment rate in 2017-18, the worst in over four decades. The picture has proved more dismal in the ensuing months since April-May of 2020.

For instance, in December 2021, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) estimated that nearly 53 million Indians were unemployed, a large proportion of whom were women. The unemployment rate was hovering at 7.91% in December 2021, and though there has been some talk of a dip in unemployment in January 2022, the figure still stands at a worrying 6.57%.

Exposing claims

Percentages and data spun out by governmental agencies and policy think-tanks are open to contestation, but there are other indices of proof that seriously contradict the tall claims of employment generation. One such index is the downward pressure unleashed by the influx of overqualified youth aspiring for middle and lower rung government jobs, which, despite their modest pay, are highly coveted given the greater job security ascribed to them.

Expectedly then, having advertised over 35,000 posts, the Railway Recruitment Board was swamped with over 1.25 crore applications; a significant proportion of which were postgraduate degree holders. This created massive insecurity among a section of candidates who met the minimum eligibility but were being forced to compete with candidates having higher educational credentials.

With government jobs being limited, and reducing in number due to the contractualisation and outsourcing of several substantative posts, intense competition persists across various categories of jobs; a point brought to light yet again by the recent Railways’ recruitment controversy. As clarified by the Railway Recruitment Board and Union Railway Minister, for the second stage of testing that stoked protests, the huge number of aspirants for the lowest right up to the highest level of jobs advertised, eventually compelled the authorities to shortlist 20 times the number of candidates for all levels.

Explaining the scramble

Shockingly, advertisements for even a handful of lower rung government jobs attract an overwhelming number of applications, leading at times to the withdrawal of such advertisements. In September 2021, news reports highlighted that among 18,000 applicants for some 42 posts (peon, gardener and cook) in the Himachal Pradesh secretariat, there were hundreds of doctorate and other postgraduate applicants. Earlier, in March 2021, more than 27,000 candidates with degrees such as BA, BSc, MA, MSc, MCom, MBA, engineering, etc. had applied for 13 positions for a peon’s job in the Panipat district court. Likewise, for 62 posts of messengers in the Uttar Pradesh police, in August 2018, there were a total of 93,000 applicants; 3,700 were PhD holders and 50,000 were graduates. This particular job vacancy required an education level of Class V and the selection criterion comprised a self-declaration that the candidate knew how to ride a bicycle.

The desperate scramble for government jobs stems in no uncertain terms from the high job insecurity (easy hire and fire), poor basic pay, and long hours of work that characterise the bulk of jobs in the private sector. Historically, only a small number of employer-employee work relations in India — associated mostly with the formal sector — have been subject to state regulation. However, in recent decades, there has been a steady decline of state regulation of labour-capital relations in the formal sector. This deregulation has been coupled with a concerted push toward rapid privatisation of the public sector. Together, these developments have contributed significantly to periodic unemployment among both skilled and less skilled workforces, in addition to reducing avenues of gainful employment for new entrants in the job market.

A spillover effect

The ramifications of this overall process are multifold. At one level, enhanced deregulation of employer-employee work relations in the formal sector has triggered periodic unemployment of higher skilled workers, who have been spilling over into and crowding lower-skilled, informal sector jobs. Likewise, the spillover effect of periodic unemployment within middle-rung and higher-rung professional jobs in India’s job market has pushed more qualified youth to crowd lower rung government jobs.

This tendency itself has rendered a deep crisis for those with lower educational qualifications who strive for the more modest government jobs, and for whom such employment has traditionally been envisaged.

Reduced expenditure by the state on health, education and the social sector as a whole has also ensured inadequate employment generation, despite the fact that the demand for ‘public goods’ has been growing exponentially. For a country with growing educational needs, especially with large numbers seeking to escape inherited poverty through avenues opened up by education, the marked shortage of government schools and public-funded universities is alarming to say the least.

A closer look at the higher education sector itself reveals a steady increase in the number of student applicants. The scenario naturally calls for many more job recruitments of qualified teachers through the creation of new public-funded Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) and an expansion of existing ones. However, successive governments continue to restrict and even delay recruitment of teachers to existing public-funded HEIs. For example, in a large public-funded university such as the University of Delhi, a recruitment crisis has intensified over the years with over 4,500 teaching posts being filled by ad hoc teachers and appointments to permanent positions being stalled repeatedly.

Antinomy of eligibility

This recruitment crisis is also the result of an inexplicable delay in the grant of the second tranche of teaching positions that was to accompany institutional expansion in the wake of implementation of reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). A recipe for a complete disaster continues to unfold in such universities as a large, highly skilled workforce of serving teachers defensively holds on to insecure temporary job contracts as more eligible fresh candidates enter the job market. One of the contentious consequences of such heightened competition has been the enforcement of higher and higher qualifications for entry-level teaching jobs in public-funded HEIs.

In this way, another index of mounting job insecurity and unemployment is the arbitrary enhancement of educational qualifications stipulated for recruitment into better-paid government jobs, as well as new criteria for admission into professional training institutions. This tendency has not only manifested itself in public-funded HEIs wherein entry-level teaching positions now mandatorily require a PhD degree in addition to a Master’s degree and UGC-NET qualification. It is also evident in the barrage of common entrance tests for highly sought-after educational degrees such as in medicine (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, or NEET), as well as centralised eligibility tests for recruitment into jobs such as school teaching (Central Teacher Eligibility Test, or CTET). As the number of seats and vacancies fail to be augmented, we see a systematic effort to ruthlessly eliminate a growing number of aspirants using astute tests and arbitrary criteria.

In the backdrop of a large number of skilled and overqualified people languishing in the throes of unemployment, the shrill rhetoric of ‘Skill India’ rings hollow. We will see more instances of frustration and agitations by the youth in response to rampant unemployment. For the scores of educated aspiring youth, transcending the prevailing logic of the economy is a crucial starting point for envisaging a world free of unemployment. An economy that creates fewer jobs is one which overworks some while rendering large numbers unemployed. A tired India and an unemployed India are simply two sides to the same coin. The youth need to realise that their fulfilment of dignified employment cannot happen in isolation but is linked to how the sea of highly exploited labouring masses around them are also guaranteed their access to the basics — education, health and livelihood. A transformation of circumstances awaits newer sensibilities and a sense of solidarities.

Unemployment

Unemployment is a situation when a person actively searches for a job and is unable to find work. Unemployment indicates the health of the economy. 

The unemployment rate is the most frequent measure of unemployment. The unemployment rate is the number of people unemployed divided by the working population or people working under labour force.

Unemployment rate = (Unemployed Workers / Total labour force) × 100

National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) defines employment and unemployment on the following activity statuses of an individual. NSSO, an organization under MoSPI – Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation measures India’s unemployment on three approaches:

  1. Daily Status Approach: unemployment status of a person under this approach is measured for each day in a reference week. A person having no gainful work even for one hour in a day is described as unemployed for that day.
  2. Weekly Status Approach: This approach highlights the record of those persons who did not have gainful work or were unemployed even for an hour on any day of the week preceding the date of the survey.
  3. Usual Status Approach: This gives the estimates of those persons who were unemployed or had no gainful work for a major time during the 365 days.

Types of Unemployment in India

In India, there are seven types of unemployment. The types of unemployment are discussed below:

  1. Disguised Unemployment: This is a type of unemployment where people employed are more than actually needed. Disguised unemployment is generally traced in unorganised sectors or the agricultural sectors.
  2. Structural Unemployment: This unemployment arises when there is a mismatch between the worker’s skills and availability of jobs in the market. Many people in India do not get job matching to their skills or due to lack of required skills they do not get jobs and because of poor education level, it becomes important to provide them related training. 
  3. Seasonal Unemployment: That situation of unemployment when people do not have work during certain seasons of the year such as labourers in India rarely have occupation throughout the year.
  4. Vulnerable Unemployment: People are deemed unemployed under this unemployment. People are employed but informally i.e. without proper job contracts and thus records of their work are never maintained. It is one of the main types of unemployment in India.
  5. Technological Unemployment: the situation when people lose their jobs due to advancement in technologies. In 2016, the data of the World Bank predicted that the proportion of jobs threatened by automation in India is 69% year-on-year.
  6. Cyclical Unemployment: unemployment caused due to the business cycle, where the number of unemployed heads rises during recessions and declines with the growth of the economy. Cyclical unemployment figures in India are negligible. 
  7. Frictional Unemployment: this is a situation when people are unemployed for a short span of time while searching for a new job or switching between jobs. Frictional Unemployment also called Search Unemployment, is the time lag between the jobs. Frictional unemployment is considered as voluntary unemployment because the reason for unemployment is not a shortage of jobs, but in fact, the workers themselves quit their jobs in search of better opportunities.

2. Poverty rose but income inequality fell

There are signs that this pandemic has not followed the usual script — of the poor bearing the brunt of the pain

COVID-19 has upended Indian society. Over two-thirds of the country has been infected by COVID-19 and perhaps five million or so people have died, directly or indirectly, from the pandemic. The economy too has taken a beating. Even though there has been a V-shaped recovery, output remains about 10% lower than 2019.

In macroeconomic crises, including the oil shock of 1990-91 or the global liquidity crisis of 2007-08, many expect the poor to bear the brunt of the pain. They are the most vulnerable, without contractual protections and adequate safety nets. But there are signs that this pandemic has not followed that script.

Poverty certainly rose during the COVID-19 pandemic. We examined monthly data from nearly 2,00,000 households with a total of one million members from the Consumer Pyramids Household Survey through 2021.

We found that extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as the percentage of the population with an income below $1.90, rose from 7.6% in November 2019 to 11.7% in July 2021.

Income inequality

However, income inequality actually fell. In 2019, the average monthly income of households in the top 25% and bottom 25% of the income distribution was approximately ₹45,000 and ₹8,000, respectively, in urban areas, and ₹22,500 and ₹7,500, respectively, in rural areas. While the average monthly income of the top quartile in urban areas fell almost 30%, to ₹32,500 by July 2021, the monthly income of the bottom quartile in July 2021 remained at pre-pandemic levels. In rural areas, the top quartile income fell by perhaps 20%, while the bottom quartile income grew slightly during the same period. The result is that inequality, measured as the percentage change in the income of the top quartile minus the income in the bottom quartile, fell by 15-20 percentage points. This is a robust finding: richer households saw larger drops in income all along the income scale, in rural and urban areas, within each State, and even within caste groups.

This remarkable finding is not unprecedented. Historians observed the same dynamic during the plague in 14th century Europe. Given how much the world economy has changed since then, however, the explanations for India’s experience will differ.

Three sources of income

To learn why inequality fell during the pandemic, we examined three sources of household income: government transfers, business profits, and labour income. Government transfers are cash or in-kind payments. Profits may be from any business, be it a food cart, a farm, or a manufacturing plant. Labour income is wages earned from hourly work or employment contracts.

Government payments to the poor cannot explain the decline in inequality. To be sure, income support was not insubstantial. Households received roughly ₹400 per month in urban areas and nearly ₹500 per month in rural areas during the lockdown and the Delta wave. They received roughly half that much during the rest of the pandemic. However, even when government transfers were netted out from income, income inequality fell by over 20% points by July 2021.

Business profits play a bigger role than transfers. The rich saw a larger decline in business income and depended more on that income than the poor. While just 7% of a bottom quartile household’s income is from a business, nearly 15% of a top quartile’s household’s income is from a business. Unlike labour income, business income is volatile because it is susceptible to changes in demand, and thus to aggregate income. We find that business income of the top quartile is four times more sensitive to the aggregate performance of the economy than the business income of the bottom quartile. Given the large negative effect of COVID-19 on the economy, this suggests that some of the disproportionate losses of the rich operate through business income.

Labour income, however, plays a critical role (Table). Labour income is just over 65% and 80% of the income of the top 25% and bottom 25% of households. These are larger shares than those of government transfers or business profits. To explain the decline in labour income, we looked at supply-side and then demand-side explanations.

Looking at supply, one might suspect the rich chose to work less than the poor, perhaps out of fear of contracting COVID-19. That was also our conjecture, but it proved wrong. When the economy contracted, people lost jobs and income. They tried to compensate by finding alternate work, sometimes even in other occupations. While this seems a natural response for the bottom 25%, it was even more true for the top 25%. While the minimum amount that the poor were willing to accept to take a job fell roughly 40%, the minimum amount fell more than 45% for the rich.

Demand for labour

The better explanation for the disproportionate loss of labour income among the top quartile households is that demand for their labour fell more. The rich tend to work in the service sector, and demand for services fell more than demand for other sectors. While 30% of workers in bottom quartile households work in the service sector, 45% of workers from the top quartile households do. During the pandemic, consumer spending on services fell by 30%-40%, far more than the decline in spending on manufacturing or agriculture.

The situation was reversed in manufacturing. That sector employs a larger share of bottom quartile workers than top quartile ones: 35% versus 15%. But manufacturing declined less than 20% during the pandemic. The progressive contraction of demand for services swamped the regressive contraction of demand for manufacturing.

To be clear, our analysis does not suggest that the pandemic was good for the Indian economy. The loss of life and rise in poverty make it one of the larger disasters the country has borne. The reduction in inequality would be a silver lining if it were accomplished by lowering poverty rather than reducing the income of the rich.

Nevertheless, by understanding the decline in inequality during the pandemic we can assess prospects for inequality after it ends. Once demand for services rises, along with aggregate income, both demand for the labour of the rich and the business income of that group will likely return. There is a risk that inequality will return to pre-pandemic levels.

3. India’s ‘space economy’ valued at ₹36,794 crore

The sector has evolved considerably and now accounts for about 0.23% of the GDP, says a study by two premier institutions

A collaboration between two premier research and educational institutions in Thiruvananthapuram has shed light on India’s “space economy”, the contours of which have remained largely vague even as the country’s space programme grew by leaps and bounds.

In a first-of-its kind attempt at measuring the size of India’s space economy, researchers from the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) and the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) arrived at a figure of ₹36,794 crore (approximately $5 billion) for the financial year 2020-21. The estimated size, as a percentage of the GDP, has slipped from 0.26% in 2011-12 to 0.19% in 2020-21, they found.

The findings, outlined in a paper, “The space economy of India: its size and structure”, by CDS Director Sunil Mani; V.K. Dadhwal, till recently IIST Director; and Shaijumon C.S., Associate Professor of Economics, IIST, were the subject of a recent webinar.

By employing internationally accepted frameworks, the authors have examined the annual budget for the space programme and its constituents; space manufacturing, operations and application. According to the paper, space applications accounted for the major chunk of this evolving economy, constituting 73.57% (₹27,061 crore) of it in 2020-21, followed by space operations (₹8,218.82 crore or 22.31%) and manufacturing (₹1,515.59 crore or 4.12%).

The budget outlay for space has considerable influence on the dynamics of the space economy, according to the study. “’India’s space economy has evolved considerably and now accounts, on an average, for about 0.23% of the GDP (over 2011-12 to 2020-21). We have also noticed a decline in the budget for space-related activities, leading to a reduction in the size of the economy in the last two years,” Professor Mani said. The budget outlay in 2020-21 was ₹9,500 crore, shrinking from ₹13,033.2 crore in the previous fiscal. The estimated size of the space economy shrunk from ₹43,397 crore in 2018-19 to ₹39,802 crore in 2019-20 and ₹36,794 crore in 2020-21.

The study also found that the space budget as a percentage of the GDP slipped from 0.09% in 2000-01 to 0.05% in 2011-12, and has remained more or less at that level since then. In relation to GDP, India’s spending is more than that of China, Germany, Italy and Japan, but less than of the U.S. and Russia.

First attempt

While it has limitations, the study nevertheless is a first-time attempt at scientifically measuring the size of the space economy, Dr. Shaijumon said. Professor Mani cited the inability to establish the size of the space-based remote sensing industry as a drawback. “The next step for us would be to look at the impact of space economy on the Indian economy itself. The impact is both direct and indirect,” he said.

For the present study, the authors have relied on Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Parliament documents, the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s (CAG) reports, data on intellectual property rights and other government data, in addition to Scopus-indexed space publications.

The CDS-IIST research project has coincided with the new Central government policies opening up the sector to private players. These policies, according to the authors, are very likely to enlarge the size of the sector through enhanced private investment and improved integration with the global private space industry.

4. Modi pitches for ‘local for global’

Prime Minister praises India for achieving the export target of $400 billion

After his ‘vocal for local’ pitch, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his 87th edition of the Mann ki Baat radio broadcast on Sunday, made a call for ‘local for global’ while lauding the quantum jump in exports of Indian products.

Praising India for achieving the export target of $400 billion, Mr. Modi said that at first instance, it might come across as a matter related to the economy, but more than that, it was related to the capability of India, the potential of India.

“Our export figures stand at 400 billion dollars today and this means that the demand for items made in India is increasing all over the world. The supply chain of India is getting stronger by the day. The nation takes great strides when resolutions are bigger than dreams,” he said.

Today new products from all corners of the country were reaching foreign shores, let they be leather goods from Hailakandi in Assam or handloom products from Osmanabad, or fruits and vegetables from Bijapur, he said.

He attributed the success of “Make in India” drive to farmers, artisans, weavers, engineers, small entrepreneurs and MSME sector, among others, and pitched for making the local ‘global’ and augment the prestige of Indian products further.

The Prime Minister also spoke about the need for yoga and cleanliness and urged children to take up water conservation issues on a war footing. He urged the entrepreneurs in Ayush-related start-ups to propagate their products in languages for audiences in non-English speaking foreign countries.

Mr. Modi said that during the last one year through the government’s GeM portal, the government had purchased items worth more than ₹1 lakh-crore.

Close to 1.25 lakh small entrepreneurs, small shopkeepers from every corner of the country had sold their goods directly to the government, the PM said.

“There was a time when only big companies could sell goods to the government. Now even the smallest of shopkeepers can sell one’s goods to the government on the GeM Portal — this is the New India, in which all of us together will fulfill the dream of an Aatmanirbhar Bharat, a self-reliant India,” he said.

5. SC seeks foolproof norms to identify STs

Judiciary no longer sure of ‘affinity test’ to sift through anthropological, ethnological traits

The Supreme Court wants to fix foolproof parameters to determine if a person belongs to a Scheduled Tribe and is entitled to the benefits due to the community.

The judiciary is no longer sure about an “affinity test” used to sift through anthropological and ethnological traits to link a person to a tribe. There is the likelihood that contact with other cultures, migration and modernisation would have erased the traditional characteristics of a tribe.

A Bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and V. Ramasubramanian has considered it best to refer the question of fixing the parameters to a larger Bench. The Bench emphasised that the issue was a “matter of importance” when it came to issuance of caste certificates.

According to the “Scheduled Tribes in India as revealed in Census 2011” by C. Chandramouli (Registrar-General & Census Commissioner, India, Ministry of Home Affairs), there are said to be 705 ethnic groups notified as Scheduled Tribes (STs). Over 10 crore Indians are notified as STs, of which 1.04 crore live in urban areas. The STs constitute 8.6% of the population and 11.3% of the rural population.

The Supreme Court’s decision to refer the question to a larger Bench for an authoritative decision came after it realised that the courts were faced with varied opinions about the efficacy of the affinity test.

On one side, a full Bench of the Bombay High Court in Shilpa Vishnu Thakur v State of Maharashtra accepted the “relevance and importance of the affinity test”. The full Bench, in a decision in 2009, held that the affinity test was an “integral part” of the verification process for caste certificates. Scrutiny committees could easily determine the authenticity of a claim by running an affinity test on the basis of ethnicity and anthropology.

The HC had said that the term ‘affinity’ meant the ‘association’ of the applicant for a caste certificate with a Scheduled Tribe into which he or she has been born.

However, two years later, in 2011, the Supreme Court adopted a cautionary note. It indicated that the affinity test may have run its course. The court in Anand v Committee for Scrutiny and Verification of Tribe Claims reasoned that affinity test may have been a determinative factor “a few decades ago, when the tribes were somewhat immune to the cultural development happening around them”.

However, with the migrations, modernisation and contact with other communities, these communities tend to develop and adopt new traits which may not essentially match with the traditional characteristics of the tribe. “Affinity test may not be regarded as a litmus test for establishing the link of the applicant with a Scheduled Tribe,” the court said.

“The claim by an applicant that he is a part of a Scheduled Tribe and is entitled to the benefit extended to that tribe, cannot per se be disregarded on the ground that his present traits do not match his tribes’ peculiar anthropological and ethnological traits, deity, rituals, mode of marriage, death ceremonies, method of burial of dead bodies etc. Thus, the affinity test may be used to corroborate the documentary evidence and should not be the sole criteria to reject a claim,” the apex court had warned.

6. States can identify minorities: govt.

No truth in petitioner claim that Centre has unbridled power, it tells SC

The governments in nine places where followers of Hinduism, Baha’ism and Judaism are a ‘minority’, can consider laying down guidelines to identify them as minority communities at the State level, the Centre has told the Supreme Court.

“Matters like declaring that followers of Judaism, Baha’ism and Hinduism who are minorities in Ladakh, Mizoram, Lakshadweep, Kashmir, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Punjab and Manipur can establish and administer educational institutions of their choice in the State and laying down guidelines for identification of minority at State level may be considered by the State government concerned,” the Ministry of Minority Affairs told the Supreme Court.

The Centre was responding to a petition filed by advocate Ashwini Upadhyay that the followers of Judaism, Baha’ism and Hinduism — who are the real minorities in Ladakh, Mizoram, Lakshadweep, Kashmir, Nagaland, Meghalya, Arunachal Pradesh, Punjab and Manipur — cannot establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

The Centre said the allegation was “not correct”.

The government’s affidavit explained that Parliament and State legislatures have concurrent powers to enact law to provide for the protection of minorities and their interests.

“Religious and linguistic minorities are spread all over the country and are not related or restricted to any single State or Union Territory. A religious group that is in majority in one State may be in minority in another State,” the Centre submitted.

The Centre gave the example of how Maharashtra notified ‘Jews’ as a minority community within the State. Again, Karnataka notified Urdu, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Tulu, Lambadi, Hindi, Konkani and Gujarati as minority languages within the State.

The government also defended the constitutionality of Section 2(f) of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions Act and Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act of 1992.

Mr. Upadhyay had argued that the Centre has reserved for itself unbridled power to declare a community as a minority.

The Centre responded that Parliament was empowered under Article 246 of the Constitution read with Entry 20, “economic and social planning”, of the Concurrent List to enact laws to promote and protect the interests of minorities.

The government said both Acts came into existence out of Parliament’s intentions to safeguard minority interests.

Parliament has the legislative competence and the Central government has the executive competence to notify a community as a minority under Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act of 1992. “The Central government notified six communities, namely Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains, as minorities under Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act of 1992,” the affidavit said.

7. The move to ease voting for overseas citizens

How can NRIs register their mandate without being physically present at their respective constituencies? What is ETPBS?

After the passing of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2010, NRIs who had stayed abroad beyond six months have been able to vote, but only in person at the polling station where they have been enrolled as an overseas elector.

However, only a very low proportion of overseas residents actually registered or turned up to vote. The proviso of having to visit the polling booth in person has discouraged eligible voters from exercising their mandate.

The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 was amended in 2016 to allow service voters to use the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS). Under this system, postal ballots are sent electronically to registered service voters. The service voter can then register their mandate on the ballot and send it back via ordinary mail. The ECI proposed to extend this facility to overseas voters as well.

The story so far: On March 25, Union Minister for Law and Justice Kiren Rijiju in response to a question in the Lok Sabha stated that the government was exploring the possibility of allowing online voting for non-resident Indians (NRI). The minister’s statement on easing voting for NRIs comes in the wake of a proposal made by the Election Commission of India (ECI), that wrote to the Law Ministry in November 2020, to extend the facility of postal ballots to eligible NRIs for the various State Assembly elections to be held in 2021. The ECI then, had proposed amending the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, in order to allow this facility. The postal ballots were to be sent to NRIs electronically after which they will send the ballots back, after choosing their candidate, via post.

How can overseas voters currently vote in Indian elections?

Prior to 2010, an Indian citizen who is an eligible voter and was residing abroad for more than six months , would not have been able to vote in elections. This was because the NRI’s name was deleted from electoral rolls if he or she stayed outside the country for more than six months at a stretch.

After the passing of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2010, eligible NRIs who had stayed abroad beyond six months have been able to vote, but only in person at the polling station where they have been enrolled as an overseas elector.

Just as any resident Indian citizen above the age of 18 years) is eligible to vote in the constituency where she/he is a resident, overseas Indian citizens are also eligible to do so. In the case of overseas voters, their address mentioned in the passport is taken as the place of ordinary residence and chosen as the constituency for the overseas voter to enrol in.

How has the existing facility worked so far?

From merely 11,846 overseas voters who registered in 2014, the number went up to close to a lakh in 2019. But the bulk of these voters (nearly 90%) belonged to just one State — Kerala. Of the 25,606 such voters who actually turned up, 25,534 were from Kerala (mostly from Kozhikode and Malappuram districts).

Clearly, a very low proportion of eligible overseas residents actually registered or turned up to vote. The Representation of the People Act, envisaged voters as only the “ordinary residents” in a constituency who will choose representatives to represent their local interests while mediating on larger issues in the legislature.

Some democracies that already allow absentee voting stipulate that overseas electors are eligible to vote provided they are not abroad for a specified period of time and/or if they mention an “intent to return”.

Section 20-1A, Part III of the Representation of the People Act addresses this to some extent by qualifying “a person absenting himself temporarily from his place of ordinary residence shall not by reason thereof cease to be ordinarily resident therein” and in essence provides for NRIs who are temporarily staying abroad to be eligible to vote in their local constituencies.

Yet, the proviso of having to visit the polling booth in person has discouraged eligible voters from exercising their mandate.

In the winter session of Parliament in 2017, the government proposed to remove the restriction imposed by Section 20A of the Representation of the People Act, which required them to be physically present to vote in their constituencies.

The Bill provided for overseas voters to be able to appoint a proxy to cast their votes on their behalf, subject to conditions laid down in the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.

The Bill was later passed in 2018, but lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. The ECI then approached the government to permit NRIs to vote via postal ballots similar to a system that is already used by service voters, (a member of the armed Forces of the Union; or a member of a force to which provisions of the Army Act, 1950 (46 of 1950) which is the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System or ETPBS.

What is ETPBS and how does it function?

The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 was amended in 2016 to allow service voters to use the ETPBS. Under this system, postal ballots are sent electronically to registered service voters. The service voter can then download the ETPB (along with a declaration form and covers), register their mandate on the ballot and send it to the returning officer of the constituency via ordinary mail. The post will include an attested declaration form (after being signed by the voter in the presence of an appointed senior officer who will attest it). The postal ballot must reach the returning officer by 8 a.m. on the day of the counting of results.

The ECI proposed to extend this facility to overseas voters as well. For this to commence, the Law Ministry has to amend the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. In the case of NRI voters, those seeking to vote through ETPBS will have to inform the returning officer at least five days after notification of the election. The returning officer will then send the ballot electronically via the ETPBS. The NRI voter can then register her/his mandate on the ballot printout and send it back with an attested declaration in a process similar to the service voter. Except in this case, the senior officer would be appointed by the Indian diplomatic or consular representative in the resident country of the NRI. The ECI has not specified whether the voter should send in the ballot through ordinary post to the returning officer or drop it off at the Indian consular office/embassy, which will then send the envelopes constituency-wise to the returning officers.

Will this facility be available to all overseas voters across countries?

There were news reports that the ECI had indicated to the Ministry of External Affairs that it would want postal voting introduced on a pilot basis in non-Gulf countries. But ECI officials told The Hindu that the ECI had asked the Law Ministry to explore the possibility of extending postal ballots to overseas electors and not restrict it to any particular country.

In March 2021, the Ministry of External Affairs informed ECI that the implementation could require to overcome “huge logistical challenges” and needs “a realistic assessment of requirements”

Are postal ballots a viable means of voting?

The ETPBS method allowed for greater turnout among service voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. With increasing mobility of citizens across countries for reasons related to work, the postal ballot method has been recognised by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (an intergovernmental organisation that works to support democratic processes and institutions) as a means to allow overseas voters to exercise their right, subject to certain conditions normally related to the time spent abroad or the work carried out abroad.

A postal ballot mechanism that allows for proper authentication of the ballot at designated consular/embassy offices and an effective postal system should ease this process for NRIs, but rules must be clearly framed for eligibility on the basis of time spent away from the country.

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