Indian expats intensify campaign on voting

NRIs in the Emirates are to press for online registration of voters or enrolment at diplomatic missions.

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DUBAI // Indian expatriates will renew calls for easier voting access at an upcoming forum in New Delhi after parliament accorded balloting rights to non-residents (NRIs) earlier this year.

Indians in the Emirates will press for online registration of voters or enrolment at diplomatic missions at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas convention, the annual January gathering for Indians living overseas. The government's move did not include a provision for absentee ballots and any prospective voters would have to be at the polling station in person.

"After years of demanding voting rights for NRIs, the Indian government has finally agreed to allow us to vote," said Dr Ram Buxani, a prominent Indian businessman in Dubai. "The government should take steps to ensure we can register to vote at the consulate or embassy.

"We understand that the absentee ballot is not an easy option for a country like India. However, expecting NRIs to register in India is ridiculous."

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, which will run from January 7-9, has been held every year since 2003 to provide a platform for Indian expats to engage with the government, to network and to discuss their common problems. More than 25 million NRIs are living overseas according to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs 2009-10 report and the right to vote has been an issue of long standing with them.

Indian associations in the Emirates are demanding easy enrolment to enable larger NRI participation in state and parliamentary elections. The lower house of parliament passed the Representation of the People [Amendment] Bill 2010 in August allowing overseas Indians to vote. However, they would be required to register in India only during times specified by the election commission and would have to travel again to cast their vote, an option many could not afford.

The Sharjah-based Pravasi Bandu Welfare Trust, a community organisation, has already requested that the election commission allow NRIs to register all year round in an effort to simplify the process.

"Under the present procedure many cannot add their name to the voters' list," said K V Shamsudheen, the organisation's chairman, in a written petition. "If they have a permanent facility for overseas Indians we can enroll any time we visit India."

Going a step further, many organisations are pressing for overseas enrolment, instead of registering in India.

"It is still unclear what the government is planning," said K Balakrishnan, the president of the Indian Association in Sharjah. "We should be able to register at the embassy or online. In our next meeting we will prepare points that need to be raised concerning NRI voting facilities."

Community leaders recognise that a major concern is combating bogus online enrolment. N P Ramachandran, the general secretary of the Overseas Indian Cultural Congress in Dubai, said after meeting with officials last week that New Delhi was particularly keen to ensure that those who voted were in fact those who signed up.

"Their issue is about verifying the authenticity of people who register online," said Mr Ramachandran, who hopes to vote in the forthcoming Kerala state assembly election. "There are ways and means to overcome these concerns. The modalities can be worked out if there is a will."

Vayalar Ravi, the Indian minister for Overseas Affairs, said he was working with various ministries and the election commission to help expedite the process.

"We are in discussions with the external affairs and law ministries on the modus operandi of enrolling NRI voters," he said. "We are examining whether to enroll voters in India or at the embassies in different countries."

"NRIs are scattered around the world and we are aware that it is not very easy for them to travel to India to register. We want to have a simple enrolment process. However, rules have to be framed in consultation with the election commission. We are moving very fast on this. We hope to sort this out before the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas."