The amended Citizenship Act and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens are not signs of minimal government or maximal governance, Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo said in an article in The Indian Express published on Thursday.

Instead, the CAA and the NRC introduce “meddlesome officialdom into a question as fundamental to people’s lives as citizenship”, they said. “If you are not citizen of the country where you have lived all your life, and no one else wants you, who are you? And it is what many young people are upset about.”

Banerjee and Duflo, who are married to each other, co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab in 2013, and teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2019, along with Michael Kremer.

“But there is something else that the government should worry about here,” the article said. “In all of this conversation about citizenship, it seems to take as given that immigrants are a problem.” The economists argued that there was no case against low-skilled economic migrants. Instead, all the evidence suggested that “even after large bouts of low-skilled migration, the earnings of other low-skilled migrants are unaffected”. This was partly because economic migrants take up any job that they get and partly because they not only sell labour but also buy things with their earnings.

They added that the real challenge was for the middle class since they would worry that the economic migrants will take away what they perceive as theirs – a local government job. “But it is a sign of our poor governance that government jobs are as much of a windfall as they are now — the fact that in 2019, 19 million Indians applied for 63,000 low-level jobs in the railways, should tell us we are getting something very wrong,” the article said.

“But more importantly, the same questions about economic justice for the local population, if not confronted now, will arise (and have already arisen) everywhere in India, in an ever more fractal way,” the article added. “Are Tamil-speaking children of Bengali Hindu migrants to Chennai entitled to jobs in the state government? How about the Marathi-speaking children from Bihar, who grew up in Maharashtra?”

“Paranoia about immigration is a genie that needs to be put back in the bottle as soon as possible,” the Nobel laureates said, adding that to do this, India must open its doors to all and embrace its vision of being “one of the mother lodes” of civilisation. “Why not open our doors to everyone who signs up in our national mission of being democratic, open, tolerant and inclusive?”

Why should India not open its doors for Ahmadis, who are persecuted in Pakistan, or Hindu Tamils from Sri Lanka, they asked. “We have 1.3 billion people — a few more millions would disappear in a flash in to that melting pot. And we would really be a lodestar for the world.”

The Citizenship Amendment Act, approved by Parliament on December 11, provides citizenship to refugees from six minority religious communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, provided they have lived in India for six years and entered the country by December 31, 2014. The Act has been widely criticised for excluding Muslims.

The National Register of Citizens is a proposed nationwide exercise to identify undocumented migrants. It was carried out in Assam earlier this year. Its final list excluded 19 lakh people, or 6% of the state’s population.

There have been massive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed NRC across India over the past month, resulting in the deaths of at least 26 people.