Don’t discriminate against non-resident migrants | Opinion
Create a legal regime that allows them to access safety, shelter and welfare services on equal terms as residents
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi recently announced that India must become Atmanirbhar (self-reliant). One aspect of this could be that India will remove barriers within its internal markets to truly become a single market. It will remove the hurdles to efficiency improvements and become more competitive. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) was a step in this direction. Recent decisions to remove hurdles in inter-state agricultural trade are also similar. For agricultural and industrial products, as well as capital, India is increasingly becoming a single market. The creation of a barrier-free domestic market is also an intent reflected in Article 301 of the Constitution.
However, there is one market where frictions are being added rather than reduced. This is the labour market. For different reasons, leaders from out-migration and in-migration states have made statements suggesting that there may be more impediments to the inter-state migration of workers. Some states have announced preferential treatment for workers from within the state. Others have spoken of instituting an approval system before allowing their workers to move to other states, in the backdrop of how they were treated.
There are compelling reasons for internal migration in India.
First, India has much higher economic differences across states than comparable countries — with the per capita income of the richest large state (Haryana) being more than six times that of the poorest state (Bihar). The wage gap between states is as high as 100% for regular workers and 250% for casual workers. It is, therefore, no wonder that workers from the poorer states migrate to richer states for work. As of now, the best option for many poor people looking to escape poverty is to leave the states they live in, because of economic opportunities in richer states. This movement is difficult since the cost of living is also higher in richer states. However, millions still migrate and brave squalid conditions in in-migration states because they need livelihoods.
Second, some of the poorer states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have younger and larger populations, with many more workers than work opportunities. While these states must develop their economies, in the short-term, migration is an essential component of development for them.
Third, India’s growth has been largely services-led. For most services, the availability of physical labour is essential. For services such as cooking, driving, hairdressing and security, there is a need for workers to be physically present to provide the service.
While beneficial for migrants, migration also has negative implications. Migration can put downward pressure on wages in richer states, with the increase in the supply of workers. This creates an incentive for regional and local leaders to generate anti-migrant sentiments, and to promote policies that favour local workers. This dynamic is not very different from the one seen in international migration — after a point, a political economy develops to oppose migration.
Throughout India’s history, states have enacted laws and measures that are discriminatory vis-à-vis non-resident migrants. Many state laws discourage or prevent non-residents from applying for government jobs or other professions that require government licensing (auto, taxi licences), or deny them the benefits of educational reservations. Other laws, prevalent in some states of the Northeast, regulate the entry of non-residents within the state. Yet another category of laws prevents non-residents from owning property (such as in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and others). The Union government has recently announced “One Nation One Ration Card” because non-resident migrants are currently ineligible for many state welfare schemes.
Even though Article 19(1)(d) of the Constitution guarantees free movement and residence, states have enacted “reasonable restrictions” to disfavour non-resident migrants. Article 16 outlaws discrimination in employment on the grounds of residence, but the criteria for determining reservations is usually linked to local demographic characteristics. The courts have also largely upheld positive discrimination in employment and education that nonetheless discriminates against non-residents. They have upheld not just residency as a ground for eligibility for jobs and educational seats, but also the charging of differential capitation fees based on residency. In doing so, courts have generally privileged the equality interests in the Constitution at the cost of free movement and residence.
While such measures ostensibly serve to protect local constituents, they inhibit migration and thus the law of comparative advantage from operating to the benefit of in-migration states. Bengaluru could not have become a hub for information technology if it had imposed restrictions on the movement of skilled professional migrants who eventually settled in the city. Contrary to nativist sentiments, Karnataka’s population has been a net beneficiary of this in-migration because of the increased contribution of Bengaluru to Karnataka’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) besides the value of diversity.
This benefit is not limited to skilled or high-end services. To the extent that Bengaluru’s economy powers Karnataka’s growth, a migrant hairdresser working in Bangalore is also important for the state’s economy. This was evident recently when the Karnataka government wanted to prevent migrants from leaving for their home states because of their importance to the construction industry. It is, therefore, time to seriously re-examine the legal framework that inhibits the movement of migrants across the country, and prevents them from accessing safety, shelter and welfare services on equal terms as residents.