The Cheat Sheet

Assam, NRC, and the economics of migration

Venky Vembu | Updated on December 24, 2018 Published on August 01, 2018

I heard that over 40 lakh people are losing their citizenship…

You heard wrong. It’s true that the draft list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam, the mechanism to identify illegal immigrants (mostly from Bangladesh) into the State, has left out the names of over 40 lakh people who claim to be Indian citizens, but that’s a long way from disenfranchising or deporting them. In fact, I reckon that nothing will come of this exercise.

Because they are all legitimate citizens of India?

Not necessarily, but because establishing that they are illegal immigrants in a way that satisfies the Supreme Court (which is monitoring the exercise) will be difficult. Particularly because the process of identifying them, as reflected in the NRC draft list, has been tardy. Even if the administration identifies illegal immigrants beyond the 1971 cut-off date, it cannot send them back to Bangladesh in the absence of a deportation agreement.

What’s this talk of a ‘civil war’…

Such hyperbole only shows that talk is cheap when politicians look to tap into basic human instincts and prey on the fears of loss of citizenship.

So what’s the economic angle to all this?

Economists view migration through the prism of the ‘push-pull’ model. Push factors drive people to leave home, as happened with refugees who fled persecution in erstwhile East Pakistan prior to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, and came to India. The need to escape grinding poverty back home may also have been a push factor.

What about ‘pull’ factors?

They are the prospects of jobs and a better life in other countries that draw immigrants.

So, who gains and who loses from migration?

Research studies have held for long that economically developed but ageing societies with low birth rates, such as those in Europe, benefit from inward migration, even of refugees. A 2016 IMF research study, ‘Impact of Migration on Income Levels in Advanced Societies’, concluded that immigration increases the per-capita GDP of host economies, mostly by raising labour productivity, and that both high- and low-skilled migrants contribute.

But does India benefit similarly?

Since India is population-rich, and itself grapples with grinding poverty, inward migration isn’t as economically beneficial, and comes with the burden of political tensions brought on by demographic changes, such as Assam has witnessed. In fact, other studies make a persuasive case for restrictions on migration.

How so?

Researchers have posited controversially that migrants from poor countries carry with them, and transmit to rich countries, that which makes poor countries poor. Thus, low productivity spreads from poor countries to rich countries via cultures and institutions carried by migrants — such as disease or pollution. If such migrants sufficiently impoverished the countries they arrive in, it would offset the global gains to migration.

Sounds like edgy economics.

In Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World, economist Sir Paul Collier notes: “Migrants are ... escaping from countries with dysfunctional social models… The cultures — or norms and narratives — of poor societies… stand suspected of being the primary cause of their poverty… There are large cultural differences that map into important aspects of social behaviour, and migrants bring their culture with them.. (with) the potential risk that the social model will become blended in such a way that damagingly dilutes its functionality.”

Bottomline?

Some economists believe that not all migration is beneficial.

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Published on August 01, 2018
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