Discriminating against migrants isn’t just unconstitutional, it’s also bad politics

“One country, one market!” With that slogan, politicians of all parties cheered the launch of a unified Goods and Services Tax in 2017, ending the old era when every state had its own tax rates. Alas, unity for India’s market for goods and services is suddenly giving way to disunity for the labour market.

The new Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, has scrapped state concessions for companies employing more than 30% of workers from other states. Meanwhile, BJP chief minister of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani, is drafting a law forcing new projects to hire at least 80% of their workers from within the state, and 25% from the same locality.

The BJP and Congress, supposedly all-India parties with national footprints, are retreating into narrow localism. This is immoral, uneconomic and unconstitutional.

Rabindranath Tagore dreamed of an era when “the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” Alas, both the Congress and BJP are energetically building such narrow domestic walls.

Article 15 of the Constitution says, “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” Neither Narendra Modi nor Rahul Gandhi, Vijay Rupani or Kamal Nath, can wriggle out of that. Kamal Nath protests that, whatever the Constitution may say, in practice many states have special benefits for locals, so he is following what others have long done. This amounts to arguing that because many people violate the Constitutional ban on discriminating based on religion, caste, sex or place of birth, therefore state governments are entitled to do so too. No, state governments are supposed to enforce Constitutional rules, not break them.

In his recent Papola Memorial Lecture, IIM Professor Errol D’Souza highlighted the Supreme Court judgment in Charu Khurana vs Union of India in 2013, upholding the right of citizens to freely migrate and take up employment anywhere in India. Although 30% of Indians are migrants (mostly for marriage), they typically do so within a district or state. Inter-state migration, which is now a political issue, is very low by international standards. A 2018 paper by Kone and others in the Journal of Economic Geography showed that, over a five-year period, inter-state migration in India represented only 1.06% of the population, far lower than in comparable large countries like Brazil (3.6%), China (4.7%) and the US (10%). A study in the Population and Development Review by M Bell and others compared internal migration in 80 countries between 2000 and 2010, and found that India came last.

India does not suffer from exceptionally large inter-state migration. This is very modest, and should rise several times over as prosperity and communications improve. India should prepare for greater integration, not higher internal walls.

Migration improves a nation’s diversity, economic growth and equality. Poor people from labour-surplus zones are able to migrate to richer labour-scarce zones, benefiting both zones. The migrants bring skills and capital back to their villages and raise productivity there.

Stiff competition for jobs these days has induced many groups to seek job quotas and sanctions on people from other states. Politicians are tempted to woo these vote banks. But the whole point of fundamental rights in a Constitution is to check short-term populism that erodes the core principles needed for national unity.

Modi harps on threats to national unity but these come not just from Pakistan or Kashmiri separatists. Unity is threatened every time politicians discriminate against people from other states.

Some years ago, attacks in Karnataka forced 15,000 immigrants from the north-east to flee. In Gujarat this year, a rape ascribed to an immigrant led to widespread attacks on all immigrants from north India, causing up to 40,000 to flee.

Traditionally, Gujarat always welcomed immigrants from UP and Bihar. Studies suggest that migrants account for 70% of the workforce in Surat and 50% in Ahmedabad. In the 2014 election campaign, these migrants told their relatives back home that Modi’s Gujarat had welcomed and treated them well. This boosted Modi’s image — and hence votes — in the Gangetic plain. Gujarat’s approach was in sharp contrast with that of the Shiv Sena hate campaign against immigrants in Maharashtra.

Today, Gujarat is going the Shiv Sena way. This is not just immoral and unconstitutional, it may also be political suicide. UP and Bihar have 130 parliamentary seats against only 26 in Gujarat. The BJP’s new stance in Gujarat implicitly blesses the attacks on north Indian workers. This can lose Modi far more votes in UP and Bihar than it gains in Gujarat. That will be just deserts.

What do you think?