In a majority of India’s districts, less than one in 10 of the urban workforce is an interstate migrant. Siddharaj Solanki/ HT

Nativism, the cry for job protection of locals, is rearing its head again in India. The newly elected government of Andhra Pradesh has just passed the Andhra Pradesh Employment of Local Candidates in the Industries/Factories Bill, 2019. As per this law, 75% of jobs in industries are to be reserved for locals. Madhya Pradesh is mulling over a similar law. Goa and Odisha may be next in line. Maharashtra and Assam have seen similar nativist agitations for decades in varying intensities. And as more people from North India move to the south, as a result of a major directional shift in India’s economic migrant trail, voices of antinorth Indian migrant sentiments are also beginning to surface, albeit softly.

Political jingoism rarely rests on data, but in this case, even those who chose to look at the evidence to make claims about the changing nature of India’s migration had nothing to rely on—until late-last month. Much delayed data from the 2011 census shows that most work-related migration remained within state borders even as India’s economic growth quickened considerably in the 2000s, that interstate migration did not dramatically rise between 2001 and 2011, and that the case against nativism, adequately enshrined in India’s Constitution, is firmly backed by data.

The new insight the census offers is a decisive directional shift in India’s migration story—with the Hindi heartland exodus no longer directed at just the economic hubs along the western coast, but also along a newly emerging north-to-south corridor. More Indians are also moving across state lines in search of better educational opportunities. But despite these newly emerging trails, in a majority of India’s districts, less than one in 10 (or less than 10%) of the urban workforce is an interstate migrant. In Madhya Pradesh, where there are calls for a quota for locals, that share is 5%.

Interstate migration

The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of movement and consequently employment within India through several provisions. Article 19 ensures that citizens can “move freely throughout the territory of India”. Article 16 guarantees no birthplace-based discrimination in public employment. Article 15 guards against discrimination based on place of birth and Article 14 provides for equality before law irrespective of place of birth. Some of these Articles were invoked in a landmark 2014 case—Charu Khurana vs. Union of India—when a trade union had declined membership to a make-up artist because she had not lived in Maharashtra for at least five years, as per the union’s rules. The trade union lost the case. The recent job protection law passed by the Andhra Pradesh government can and should therefore be challenged primarily on constitutional grounds.

But constitutional provisions aside, the numbers on interstate migration should also influence the debate on job protection for locals. Census figures on absolute magnitudes of interstate migration are usually underestimates since they do not capture short-term and circular migration very well, but inferences can still be gleaned from growth rates and comparative percentages.

As per the census, the stock of interstate migrants grew from 41 million in 2001 to 54 million in 2011, but the share in total population remained roughly the same at around 4%. Migration flows in the decade before the census rose from 20 million (1991-2001) to 26 million (2001-2011). Between 1991 and 2011, the share of interstate migration in overall internal migration also remained roughly constant at around 12% (19% for males and 10% for females). While migration rates surged between 2001 and 2011, the bulk of this surge came from migration within states rather than interstate migration.

Much of the interstate migration for women occurs as reciprocal flows in districts along state boundaries as marriage is a primary reason for migration, but the 2011 census shows a sharp pick up in interstate female migration for economic reasons such as employment or business.

Over half of male interstate migration is for economic reasons but, even there, most interstate migration is confined to neighbouring states—barring large corridors from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to Maharashtra (mainly Mumbai), Gujarat, and other relatively prosperous regions.

North-South corridor

There is also a distinct north-to-south corridor observed in the data. If Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal are considered as one bloc and Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (and Telangana) are taken as another bloc, 85% of the bilateral flows between the two blocs are directed towards the south. Since 2011, field reports suggest that this corridor has grown substantially and it should be confirmed by the next census in 2021. Another new and rising trend in interstate migration is movement for education, which grew to account for nearly a million Indians in 2011, growing at a quicker rate in the 2000s than in the 1990s.

Between 2001 and 2011, the total number of interstate migrants who moved for economic reasons, in particular, rose marginally from 11.6 million to 13 million. Their share in the urban workforce hovered at only 8%, with substantial regional variation (see Chart 1). In only 26 out of 640 districts did the figure exceed 25% and none of those districts were in Madhya Pradesh or Andhra Pradesh.

In city-like states and Union territories such as Delhi, Chandigarh or Daman, the figure was over 40% (of active workforce). In Mumbai, the figure stood at 24%, while for Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad, the figure was below 15%.

In over 410 out of 640 districts, especially districts in South India, the figure was well below 5%. In Tamil Nadu, the migrant workforce drawn to its manufacturing hubs such as Tiruppur mostly came from other districts within Tamil Nadu. As per the census, work related interstate migration to urban areas comprises, on average, less than 10% of the urban workforce. Even if these figures are doubled to account for underestimation, they would form only about 20% of the urban workforce, a far cry from concerns on interstate migrants swamping the labour market.

The problem is not that there is too much interstate migration but that there is too little. The migration policy framework over the past decade has identified the lack of portability of social security benefits (more than cultural or linguistic differences) as the key barrier for interstate migration and advocated enabling provisions to overcome this deficit. Instead of nativism, states need to create a framework where safe interstate migration for work is facilitated and fiscal coordination is pursued to enable the portability of social security benefits. If this is done, interstate migration would rise and provide more opportunities to remedy regional disparities. Matching skills seamlessly across geographies within India would also facilitate the ease of doing business, a much valued goal continually emphasized by the current central government.

Curious case of MP & AP

While interstate migration for work has constitutional safeguards and is not a large phenomenon, it is puzzling that states such as Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, in particular, both states of net out-migration, should consider legislating job protection for locals.

Madhya Pradesh is not only relatively poor, but it has a large share of migrant outflow in bilateral flows with other states of India. The share of interstate migrants for economic reasons in its urban workforce averages less than 5% across districts and crosses 10% only in Singrauli, Anuppur and Bhopal. Such low figures should not merit thoughts of job protection.

The Andhra Pradesh case is one of hypocrisy or selective amnesia since so many people from its coastal region have had vibrant links with Hyderabad (now in Telangana) and the US and remittances continue to support both investment and philanthropy. It should know the uncertainty caused by Donald Trump’s protectionist stance for many software engineers and businesses from that region.

If Telangana were to reciprocate with a similar legislation, it would be Andhra Pradesh that would suffer more (because of reduced access to the economic boomtown of Hyderabad). Census figures clearly show that economic migrants in the urban areas of districts that comprise the newly carved Andhra Pradesh mostly came from within those same districts (originating from a nearby town or village) and a miniscule proportion of the urban workforce came from outside.

In such a scenario, nativist legislation is unlikely to be a binding constraint but it begs the question of its necessity in the first place. Andhra Pradesh has set a dangerous precedent, which, if pursued by other states, will lead to a collective race to the bottom. Nativism concerns have been directed in the past against “dikkus, Bengalis, lungiwalas and ghair-mulkis” and have also prompted wide-ranging critiques including one sarcastic letter to the editor of a newspaper in 1973: “Only those born in the alluvial soil can work in the alluvian region. They may call themselves ‘alluvians’… To solve the problem of babies born in the air (planes), they should be employed as pilots and air hostesses. Nobody except the sons and daughters of the air should get these air jobs. They should be allowed to stay on earth in a non-classified soil region when they are off-duty.”

Thus, calls for nativism and their critiques are not new in India and they tend to occur during periods of economic sluggishness. The calls for nativism should also be seen against the backdrop of the economic slowdown. The best way to grow out of nativism is to ensure that the economy is back on track at the earliest.


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