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Disenfranchised Migrants and the City: Theory and Evidence


Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

Recognizing the lack of political rights amidst migrants and the need to amplify their identity, the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi organized a #webpolicytalk with Prof Ashwani Kumar on Disenfranchised Migrants and the City: Theory and Evidence as part of the series The State of Cities – #CityConversations.


Prof Ashwani Kumar, Professor and Dean, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, kickstarted the session by talking about his book titled “Migrants, Mobility and Citizenship in India” in which a complex theoretical analysis can be found. “I lean a lot on interdisciplinarity and learn a lot from different works carried out in sociology, anthropology, geography, and economics”, he said. His conceptualization of migration is deeply rooted in reviving past works.

Prof Kumar examines neo-modernization theory in migration studies and explained that the process of modernization provides incentives for mobility and creates conditions suitable for increases internal migration. In a multi-ethnic country like India, it tends to possess destabilizing effects and arouse conflict over the protection of space and limited economic opportunities (Weiner, 1978).

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Disenfranchised Internal Migrants

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Prof Kumar stated that they accidentally discovered the disenfranchisement of internal migrants when the Election Commission invited them to conduct research. He called this phenomenon a “continuing democratic deficit” and he also mentioned that there is a paucity of studies on this topic. He tried to conceptualize the idea of political exclusion in democracies in his works. Unprivileged migrants are often marginalized and treated as “second-class citizens” in India. The onset of COVID-19 has resulted in more research on patterns of migration and mobility. The nationwide reported figure is increasing and the lack of district-level data is serving as a challenge.

 Prof Kumar said that very high rates of migration were reported amongst the poorest and socially marginalized groups and an element of over-representation is present with respect to Adivasis and Dalits. Analysis that is missing from the voting list has not been performed and it is essential to expand the definition of “ordinarily resident” for the inclusion of internal migrants in voting procedures. A survey conducted by Prof Kumar in five states showed that 60 to 83 percent of domestic migrants failed to cast a ballot in at least one national, state, or local election after moving from their primary place of residence.

Internal Migrants and Underrepresentation

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Several countries that witness economic development struggle to include new migrants in their cities. Similarly, they face the challenge of political exclusion. Democracy promises equal representation but as this is not the case, democratic theorists have undertaken in-depth analyses. Significant evidence suggests that there is an association between mobility and lower political incorporation globally. Instances of lower political participation can be found worldwide. Alfaro-Redondo (2016) found that changing place of residence in Costa Rica can disrupt voting and Akarca and Tansel (2015) estimate a negative relationship between in-migration and electoral participation. Prof Kumar said, “States are creating de facto barriers leading to their exclusion of various types and kinds”.

An analysis of previous works showed that a good theoretical argument can be built for migrants’ political marginalization. The first explanation mentioned that those who maintain close links to their village may be unwilling to refocus their political activities, remaining detached from political life in cities. However, there is very little evidence to support this argument that their current links to their former places prevent them from incorporating politically at their destination places.

Secondly, bureaucratic obstacles linked with participation in host regions hamper enrollment. Evidence portrayed that alleviating these constraints increased migrant registration rates by 24 percentage points. Studies also showed that registration drives can be effective to spur their enrollment. Thirdly, it was found that many migrants do not possess a voted ID card owing to poor registration and recognition of migrants as citizens.

Moreover, local residents usually foresee that the arrival of migrants will increase the competition in labor markets and change the ethnocultural fabric of society. Two patterns – passive indifference and active antagonism – can come into being in the destination cities. In contrast to the long bureaucratic processes for voter registration in India, several countries like the USA, UK, and Australia have introduced mechanisms like absent voting, early voting, voting by proxy, and electronic voting.

Way Forward for Migrants’ Political Incorporation

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Firstly, citizen action is vital but it is insufficient to bring drastic changes. Bureaucracy must reciprocate the concerns of migrants and registration drives should be conducted. Voting migrants are more likely to consider the city their home and harbor norms of inter-ethnic tolerance. Even the attitudes of the local residents can be altered so that the group becomes locally significant.

An Economic Perspective

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Prof Bhagirathi Panda, Professor of Economics, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong and Honorary Director, ICSSR-North Eastern Regional Centre, Shillong, spoke about how Prof Ashwani Kumar brilliantly brought out the magnitude of exclusion of migrants and suggestions for future inclusion. Prof Panda said that the case for North East is complex as access to land is a huge constraint. Due to this, locals may view migrants as compromising their resources and ethnic identities.

From the developmental perspective, some developing nations started adopting the Western theory that the informal sector is not significant in promoting economic advancement. The group has been excluded from the story of India’s development due to the fundamental bias of ignoring the informal sector, in which many migrants are engaged. From an economist’s view, migrants need to be empowered so that the markets expand and the consumption basket is not sub-optimal.

The Data Ecosystem

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Dr. Arvind Pandey, Assistant Professor, School of Public Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, specified that the way in which settlements are described will affect the welfare of migrants. In recent times, researchers have shown that second-generation migrants are asserting their political rights in the cities, especially in slum areas. The inclusion of slum dwellers, mostly comprising migrant workers, was very poor as per Dr. Pandey. The recommendations provided by committees related to this field are hardly accepted in practice. Unfortunately, most studies on migration in India are based on secondary data sources, which are often incomplete.

Policy Actions

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Dr. Srishtee Sethi, Research Fellow, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, mentioned the work of Prof Kumar by saying that knowledge production is not enough. It is also important to translate the knowledge into policy frames. The key aspects of disenfranchisement of migrants include reimagining migrants as citizens and challenging the politics of displacement.

Dr. Sethi said, “COVID-19 really highlighted how much migrant contributes to a city and the process of city-making”.

A triangle of power is at play at the local and state level where migrants remain outside the triangle, at the periphery. Dr. Sethi calls for a transition from strategic incorporation into a systemic one to locate the migrants and provide them with the services and assistance they require.

Way Forward

Prof Ashwani Kumar said that references to migrants are scarce, even in important books. His work addresses this crisis, which is a part of not just democratic political theory but also welfare and development economics. He elaborated that, “Welfare rights could be realized only when you realize citizenship”.

Prof Bhagirathi Panda appreciated the study of process analysis of migrants’ exclusion and its linkage to macro development bias towards the informal sector. Migrants have to be mainstreamed and the remittances have to be quantified according to Prof Panda.

Dr. Arvind Pandey reiterated that the acknowledgment of the existence of migrants is very important. He suggests that migrant cells have to be introduced to cater to the needs of migrants.

In terms of the way forward, Dr. Srishtee Sethi mentioned the manner in which terminologies are used can determine and institutionalize the following processes. The session was concluded as Dr. Arjun Kumar, Director at IMPRI, thanked the speaker and the discussants. The formal vote of thanks was proposed by Ms. Anshula Mehta, Senior Assistant Director, and Deputy Editor at IMRPI.

Acknowledgment: Ritheka Sundar is a Research Intern at IMPRI

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