India’s internal migrant worker population has come under the spotlight during the Covid-19 crisis. To many, it was clear that the interests and wellbeing of this vast group of citizens was being ignored by those in power.
In a new paper, Do Politicians Discriminate Against Internal Migrants? Evidence from Nationwide Field Experiments in India, we provide evidence that the recent neglect of migrants by India’s political elite isn’t an exception, but instead reflects a systematic trend.
To evaluate this issue, we focused on how sitting politicians in 28 of India’s largest cities treat requests for help from recent migrants to their respective cities, as opposed to otherwise similar requests from long-term city residents.
We know from existing academic work, as well as journalistic reports and our own field research, that India’s politicians are flooded with requests for constituency service. Citizens can’t always rely on the bureaucracy to process claims fairly or quickly. If they can get a politician on their side, there’s a much better chance of achieving the desired outcome — whether it’s getting a local streetlamp fixed or obtaining an income certificate needed to take up a new job.
We hypothesised three reasons why municipal councillors (also known as corporators) might be less inclined to assist recent migrants in their wards, in contrast to “native” city residents. One possibility is that politicians are personally biased against those who are outsiders to the city. Another reason could be that politicians don’t themselves have strong feelings for or against in-migration, yet they see political advantages in showing migrants the cold shoulder.
A third proposition is that politicians simply believe that most recent migrants don’t register to vote or participate in urban elections, making it electorally unworthwhile to devote valuable time and resources to address their problems. This belief could stem from expectations that migrants will continue to anchor their political participation in their home villages, or that they will put off on completing the paperwork needed to transfer their place of registration.
Is it true that urban politicians treat migrants and locals differently? And if they do, what explains their favouritism toward local residents? To answer these questions, we ran a large set of experiments. We began by compiling lists of addresses and phone numbers of sitting councillors across the cities under investigation. In the first phase of the project, we mailed 2,933 letters from fictitious citizens to councillors. Each letter requested help with a small problem, and asked for a callback. Importantly, the letter mentioned that the citizen had either “recently moved to this city” from another Indian state, or that his or her family was “native to this city” and had “lived here all our lives.” This attribute, along with several others such as the citizen’s occupation, gender, and religion was randomly assigned. Finally, we recorded whether a callback was received for each of the letters sent.
We found that politicians are significantly more responsive to locals than migrants. Requests from the “native” citizens were on average 24 per cent more likely to receive a callback than those from “migrants”. This was plain evidence of discrimination.
There were several secondary results too. Citizens with Hindu names were much more likely to get a callback than those with Muslim aliases, and requests from people with high-skilled jobs (such as lawyers and engineers) caught the attention of politicians more than those with low-skilled jobs (such as cooks and cleaners). Still, the extent of the bias against migrants was larger than that associated with all other traits. Being a migrant, it seems, invites the greatest penalty when asking a politician to lend their support in helping with a basic task.
That being the case, why do politicians assign less importance to demands from migrants residing in their ward?
It comes down to politics
From the initial pattern of results, there wasn’t much to suggest that politicians personally disfavoured migrants, nor that they were channeling nativist concerns of long-term local residents in deciding how to allocate assistance. For instance, they didn’t only discriminate against low-skilled migrant workers — which is what we would expect if migration-induced job competition was the main worry — but were equally prone to ignore high-skilled migrant workers.
There were, however, signs that simple political calculations might be at play. For example, when migrants mentioned in the letter that they were a member of the councillor’s political party, they saw their probability of getting a response from the councillor go up.
Our experiment with letters to councillors, though, wasn’t enough to give us a definitive answer on the role of electoral motives. We had to dig deeper, taking a different approach.
We conducted another experiment, this time using WhatsApp and with varying political attributes. Fictitious citizens (both migrants and locals) now explicitly mentioned that they either were or weren’t registered to vote in the councillor’s ward. It turned out that this mattered a great deal in ensuring callbacks. Registered migrants were significantly more likely to get a callback than unregistered migrants. Even more tellingly, the rates of response to registered migrants was statistically indistinguishable from those of registered locals. In other words, once registration status was made clear, the disadvantage felt by migrants all but disappeared. This gives credence to the claim that politicians discriminate based on their expectations about migrants’ voting behaviour.
There was a final step. We elicited from politicians whether they believed that migrants and natives participate in city elections at differing rates. We administered a survey experiment in which we presented the politicians in our sample with one of two hypothetical citizens – a migrant or a native – and asked them to state how likely they thought it was that such a citizen would be registered to vote in the city. The results were striking. Almost 97 per cent of councillors said that a local citizen would be registered to vote in the city, but only 51 per cent of them believed the same for migrants.
Triangulating all the evidence, there seems to be little doubt that India’s urban politicians — who serve as crucial intermediaries between citizens and the state — help locals more than migrants. This seems to flow from their core preoccupation: getting re-elected. Politicians think local residents are registered voters, thus supplying assistance can generate votes. The opposite is true for migrants.
What does this mean for policymaking? Above all, civic engagement is critical. Migrants should register to vote in their cities of residence and loudly broadcast the fact that they have done so. This will force politicians to update their beliefs about migrant participation writ large. Much can be done to aid this process. NGOs such as Shram, YUVA, and Basti Suraksha Manch have been pioneering voter registration campaigns targeted at migrant workers. But more can be done to simplify and streamline the registration process and make it less onerous for those who move.
Gareth Nellis is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego; and Nikhar Gaikwad is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University. Views are personal.
The full research article is available on the website of the American Journal of Political Science, here.