India has seen many versions of the ‘sons of the soil’ argument over decades. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s announcement that only those domiciled there would be eligible for government jobs in the State is not unique in that sense. At the same time, it denotes a certain mainstreaming of nativism that more parties and States appear to be adopting. Mr. Chouhan’s announcement was packaged as a promise to the youths of the State, but in reality, it is a sign of gloom. Regional parties have always focused on local sentiments, but what is notable in recent years is the BJP and the Congress too jumping on the bandwagon. The Congress in Madhya Pradesh is supporting the move, and in Maharashtra, it is part of the ruling coalition led by the Shiv Sena which is pushing measures to give priority to locals in employment in the private sector. Similar moves from States such as Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Telangana in recent years to introduce various types of domicile eligibility for job seekers, in private and government jobs, have either been aborted or had limited outcomes. But measures that raise artificial barriers go against the grain of national integration, which includes market integration.
There are regional particularities to be considered, nevertheless. Some States require a certain proficiency in the local language to be employed in government jobs, which is for administrative reasons. There are also restrictions on movement of people into tribal areas of India. These are exceptions provided in the legal and constitutional scheme of India to manage its remarkable diversity. Inciting local passions in order to divert public attention from the real challenge of generating employment for the country’s swelling youth population falls in a different realm. Migrant populations fulfil a market demand created by gaps in skills and preferences. That is one reason why government orders and even laws of the past in several places that mandated quotas for locals in employment were not enforced. The spectre of locals losing out to migrants is hugely exaggerated and often designed to beguile the people. In Gujarat, politicians including those of the ruling BJP continue to raise a hue and cry for a domicile quota of 85% in the private sector workforce whereas the government data showed in 2017 that 92% of it was local already. India has a severe unemployment crisis and efforts that match the challenge are badly needed. Nativism is not a part of the solution. In fact, it can aggravate the crisis by creating a hostile environment to investment, growth and employment generation.