India is seeing a wave of state reservations sweep its politics.

On Saturday, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam released its manifesto for the upcoming Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. One promise stood out: the party said it would reserve 75% of jobs in industry for Tamils, if elected to power.

Just a day earlier, the Jharkhand Cabinet passed a policy that reserved 75% of private sector jobs up to a salary of Rs 30,000 per month for Jharkhandis, thus fulfilling the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s 2019 campaign promise.

Both these developments come less than a fortnight after Haryana made into law a bill that reserves 75% of jobs in the private sector that pay less than Rs 50,000 per month for locals.

Emerging consensus

And this is just this month. Last August, the BJP’s chief minister of Madhya Pradesh chief minister declared that Indians other than residents of the state would be barred from state government jobs. In 2019, the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition in Maharashtra announced that it would reserve 80% of private sector jobs for Maharashtrians. A few months before that, the Andhra Pradesh assembly passed the Employment of Local Candidates in Industries/Factories Act that makes it mandatory for industries to reserve 75% jobs for Andhraites.

Notice the sweep of these new policies: they impact states from all corners of India and at every economic tier. Highly industrialised Tamil Nadu (south), Maharashtra (west) and Haryana (north) are thinking the same way as poor Madhya Pradesh (central) and Jharkhand (east).

To add to that, every political ideology seems on board with the idea. There is almost nothing that the Hindu nationalist BJP, left wing populist DMK, Maharashtrian Shiv Sena, the Adivasi rights JMM will agree on: except, it seems, on the matter of reserving jobs for locals.

Clearly, something massive is underfoot. And the answer to it might lie in India’s faltering economy.

State borders

First, a bird’s eye level picture of inter-state migration in the Indian Union.

Contextualised for India’s massive population, the number of people moving across states for jobs is actually quite low. As per the 2011 census, India has around 5.6 crore inter-state migrants – which is only 12% of all Indian migrants. The vast majority of migrants actually seek jobs within their state’s borders. Compared to other large countries, research shows that India has very low rates of inter-state migration – China and Brazil were nearly four times higher while the United States was nine times. In fact, in a survey of 80 countries, India ranked last on internal migration: a situation that led the researchers to describe state boundaries in India as “invisible walls”.

While still lower than other countries, India’s economic boom in the 1990s and 2000s has helped push up this inter-state migration rate significantly. In the 1991 census, the number of inter-state migrants stood at only 2.7 crore. Over the next decade, this figure went up sharply, going up by 55%. In the decade after that, the rise was also substantial: 33%.

Driven by a desire for jobs, this flux was most visible in states which were either very rich or poor. From 2001 to 2011, for example, migration into Tamil Nadu went up by 39 times. The outflux of migrants from Bihar in the same period went up by 2.3 times and from Uttar Pradesh by two times.

Workers queue for a temperature check at a footwear factory in Bahadurgarh in Haryana in May 2020. Photo: AFP

Crashing economy

However, what happens when this economic engine starts to stutter?

For the past few years, the Indian economy is slowing down. For 2019-’20, India’s economic growth was the lowest in 11 years. However, even worse was to come. The year 2020 saw the devastation of India’s lockdown – the harshest of any country in the world. The country entered its first ever recession since the British left in 1947.

It is estimated that the Indian GDP will contract by a tenth in 2020-’21. The effect of this unprecedented contraction is so severe that experts fear the economy could, even in a best case scenario, take till the next decade to recover.

By itself, this sort of major economic contraction would have severely impacted inter-state migration. But what made it even worse is that India’s lockdown was especially severe on inter-state migrants. Thrown into the deep end by the snap cessation of all transport links and economic activity, migrant labour had to risk life and limb to make it back home, often walking or cycling back hundreds of kilometres.

Abandoned by the states they worked in, the lockdown made it clear that the only help workers could hope to get was from their home states. State governments therefore took up schemes to help their domiciles and, in some cases, even proposed that they regulate worker movement. The immense dislocation of the lockdown thus greatly strengthened the idea of state domicile.

Broken economic model

While the chaos of lockdown explains the actions of poor states like Jharkhand, what explains the actions of rich, industrialised states in trying to put in domicile reservations – and thus potentially harming their own economy?

The example of Haryana is instructive here. The small north Indian state has the third highest per capita GDP of any state in India with Haryana being the prime beneficiary of India’s post liberalisation economic boom. That said, how much has this industrial wealth actually benefited Haryanvis?

Not a whole lot.

In spite of the state’s wealth, many of its human development indicators lag those in much poorer states. Life expectancy for Haryanvis ranks twelfth amongst other states in the Indian Union. Infant mortality, the number of deaths per 1,000 live births of children under one year of age, is greater in Haryana than in much poorer Jharkhand. West Bengal’s government hospital bed density is six times that of Haryana.

In spite of the immense industrial resources the state has, paradoxically, seen mass movements and even riots in connection with livelihood over the past few years. In 2012, for instance, a violent strike by workers in its automobile factory in Gurgaon led Maruti to broaden its recruiting pool to states like Odisha. Companies prefer hiring temporary workers from other states to undercut the more effective organising capacity of local labour.

It is thus hardly surprising that Haryanvis feel that their local industries must do more to contribute to the welfare of the state they operate in.

One might agree or disagree with the emerging consensus on state reservations. But a combination of low economic growth, poor wealth transfer mechanisations from industry to local communities and the shock of the lockdown make for favourable conditions when it comes to the politics of it.