Indian federalism needs to adapt to better manage growing migration

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India, in the words of author VS Naipaul, is the land of a million mutinies. However, this past fortnight, the country woke up to a relatively new sort of chaos. Large sections of the Hindi media started to publish reports of Hindi-speaking migrant workers being attacked in Tamil Nadu by nativist mobs. Soon, politicians joined in. The Bharatiya Janata Party began to echo these narratives of ethnic strife as a way of attacking the state governments of Tamil Nadu and Bihar, both controlled by its opponents.

As it turned out, the reports were a remarkable example of disinformation. Videos of unrelated violence had been mislabelled as attacks on migrant labourers in Tamil Nadu and maliciously spread on social media. From here, they found their way into mainstream media reports and BJP statements. So effective was this misinformation that it almost led to widespread panic, prompting the Tamil Nadu government to rush out confidence-building measures to persuade North Indian workers not to leave the state.

That mass panic can be created out of thin air underscores just how critical it is for the Indian Union to manage the matter of inter-state migration. Even more challenging is the fact that it is a relatively new problem for Indian politics. Unlike communal and caste conflict, ethnic conflict involving migrant labour is something that did not exist in big way till quite recently.

A history

Part of the reason is that, historically, migration across state borders was not very high.

According to census data, fewer than 5% of Indians are inter-state migrants. In comparison, China has four times that number and the United States nine times. A survey of 80 countries ranked India last on internal migration: the researchers described state boundaries in India as “invisible walls”.

Moreover, only a small section of those people moved for work or employment. The number of Indians who cross state borders for work is only around 1%. The major reason for crossing borders is marriage, which is socially and politically uncontroversial and is usually take place in culturally contiguous border districts. Migration for work, on the other hand, is a politically sensitive topic across the world – and, as is increasingly true, in India too.

Even as the numbers are small in absolute terms, a host of factors have led to spikes in certain states. The 2017 Economic Survey used analytical methods to estimate changes in migration patterns. Tamil Nadu, for example, saw its migrant population explode between 2001 and 2011, going up by 39 times. Outmigration from Uttar Pradesh went up by 197% and from Bihar by 237%. Consistent with qualitative evidence, West Bengal became a supplier of labour in this decade, albeit significantly behind states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan.

Inter-state migration before this was limited by the fact that welfare in India is often provided by state governments. In addition, Indian states, many of which are bigger than most countries, exert a politico-cultural hold. However, this is now clearly changing because of two factors. One is economic liberalisation, which is disrupting traditional livelihoods such as agriculture. The second is the significant skew in India’s development pattern: almost all industry is concentrated in the south and the west, even as much of the labour comes from the north and east.

The rise of nativism

As migration patterns are changing, so is Indian politics. The past few years have seen a sharp rise in nativist sentiment around migration and job reservations for people domiciled in a state. In 2021, Haryana passed a law reserving jobs for Haryanvis. In spite of the state’s significant industrial development, the BJP-led state government was responding to anger around the fact that most industries preferred to hire migrant workers, given their cheaper rates and weaker capacity to organise for labour rights. Two years earlier, Andhra Pradesh had passed a similar law.

Similar conversations are taking place in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand around state reservations. In parallel, conflict around migrant workers is rising. In 2018, Gujarat saw attacks against Hindi speakers and a worker exodus from the industrial state.

As a result, many Indian politicians now see benefit in taking sides when it comes to migration-related ethnic strife. On Sunday, for example, the Tamil Nadu police booked a Tamil nationalist leader for makinga speech against migrant workers. This anti-migrant rhetoric in Tamil Nadu was head in parallel with the BJP purportedly organising in favour of migrant workers as part of its politics in the Hindi belt.

States are mobilising

That said, many Indian politicians are also working to genuinely manage this complex situation as best they can. Take the Tamil Nadu panic. The Bihar state government refused to get sucked into the politics of the situation and pointed out that the reports of attacks were fake. The Tamil Nadu chief minister, on his part, met with migrant workers to signal his government’s support for their safety.

During the chaos of India’s shock lockdown in 2020, state governments often took responsibility for their residents in other states, innovating new kinds of politics and policies. Kolkata, for example, announced payments to Bengali workers stranded in other states. Uttar Pradesh started to enumerate its migrant workers returning from other states.

In this regard, Jharkhand has emerged a leader. In 2020, it negotiated an agreement with the Union government’s Border Roads Organisation to protect the labour rights of Jharkhandi workers. This was unprecedented. Till now, workers had always negotiated in their personal capacity – a system that obviously placed them at a disadvantage. Earlier in January, the state also announced the first-even migrant survey.

As is well understood, migration is highly beneficial economically. It helps both poor, high-population states by providing their residents employment and remittances as well as boosts the economies of the industrialised states by providing them cheap labour to staff their industries. Even more importantly, protecting the rights of migrant workers is a moral imperative, given that they are some of the most vulnerable Indian citizens.

The rise of nativism makes this a challenge but Indian states must extensively talk to each other – much as Tamil Nadu and Bihar did just now – to make sure that India’s constitutional guarantee to movement remains a living right.

Unless otherwise mentioned, all data is from the 2011 Census

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