The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the struggles faced by India’s vast population of migrant workers – millions of whom cross state borders each year in search of new opportunities and better livelihoods. In a new article published in the American Journal of Political Science, we investigate a crucial challenge that movers face in India: accessing basic assistance from urban politicians.
We wanted to know whether sitting municipal councillors in 28 of India’s largest cities systematically favour long-term city residents over newcomers in providing constituency services.
Getting things done through the bureaucracy can be difficult and time-consuming. Having a dispensary set up in the neighbourhood, fixing a draining problem, or acquiring an income certificate can take months. Things often move faster if a local leader gets behind the request.
Locals Vs Migrants: Do They Receive Equal Help From Local Leaders?
But do local elected elites provide help equally to citizens who approach them? Or do they discriminate?
To find out, we posted letters from fictitious citizens to 2,933 municipal councilors across the country. Each letter asked for help with a simple problem, and asked for a callback at a local mobile number.
The structure of the letters was always the same, but the attributes of the citizens described in the letters varied.
Most importantly, half of the letters mentioned that the requester had “recently moved to this city” from a different Indian state, while the other half said the requester and his/her family was “native to this city” and had “lived here all our lives.”
Enumerators at a call center kept a record of all the callbacks received, and which councilors they came from. This allowed us to track whether callback rates differed across purported migrant and native requesters.
What we found was striking: politicians were 24 percent more responsive to locals than migrants, overall.
Politicians & Local Elected Representatives’ Desire To Get Re-Elected
Why was this the case? Why are politicians seemingly so concerned about the migration status of people who approach them for assistance, and why are locals at such an advantage?
Two of our initial hypotheses didn’t find support in the data. We’d varied several other characteristics of the requesters too – their religion (through the name we assigned them) and their occupation, for example. The pattern of results attached to these extra traits didn’t suggest that politicians disliked migrants because they were personally xenophobic toward ‘outsiders’. Nor did it seem that standard ‘sons of the soil’ grievances explained their behaviour.
Instead, the answer appears to lie in something more straightforward: councillors’ overriding wish to get re-elected.
In a (second) follow-up experiment conducted via WhatsApp, fictitious migrants/natives once more made requests to an elected leader. On this occasion, however, they also mentioned whether they were registered to vote in the city.
This made a big difference. As before, an unregistered migrant was much less likely to get a callback than a typical native. But a registered migrant was statistically just as likely to get a callback as a registered native. Put differently, once the migrant claimed to have a local voter ID card, the anti-migrant penalty all but disappeared.
Why Are Politicians Reluctant To Answer Requests From Migrants?
A final step in our project involved quizzing politicians directly about their beliefs regarding the political participation rates of migrants and long-term residents living in their wards. Tellingly, when told about a hypothetical native citizen, 97 percent of councillors said that such an individual would be registered to vote in the city. Only 51 percent said the same of a hypothetical migrant citizen.
Putting everything together, a clear picture emerges.
Politicians are reluctant to answer requests that come from migrants because they don’t believe that migrants will be able to vote for them in their next election bid.
Moving is hard. Filling out forms to shift voting-place can be the last thing on migrants’ priority list. On top of that, many migrants prefer to continue maintaining their place of registration in their home village or region. While this behaviour makes sense on an individual level, it has clear costs for migrant communities as a whole. In many cities, migrants are not incorporated into city vote banks because they have a reputation for not turning out on election day.
How To Improve The Situation For Migrants In Cities?
The findings of our study are dispiriting. Yet there are several policy remedies that might improve the situation we have diagnosed:
- One is simplifying re-registration procedures as far as possible.
- If there are fewer administrative hoops to jump through, then more migrants will opt to vote in their city of residence.
- NGOs can provide a nudge too: by launching registration drives and trumpeting their efforts to local politicians.
Achieving inclusive growth and equalising access to public services will be critical, as India urbanises at lightening pace. Migration is a key driver of the economy, yet migrants are too often left behind. Our study illuminates some of the constraints that this burgeoning group faces to improving their welfare. But it also offers a path forward.
(Gareth Nellis is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego. He tweets @GarethNellis.
Nikhar Gaikwad is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University. He tweets @nikhargaikwad.
This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)