About a month ago, Madhya Pradesh’s BJP Chief Minister announced prioritisation of jobs to the

youth of the State and legitimised it by saying that they had the first right over MP’s resources. Other States have taken similar steps with respect to job reservation for locals (JRFL). The reservations promised range from 30 per cent to the more common range of 70-80 per cent.

The move is applicable to both the government and/or the private sector. It has been mooted by several parties (ruling or opposition leaders) in States such as Maharashtra (1968 onwards and 2008), Karnataka (2014, 2016, 2019), Andhra Pradesh (AP, 2019), MP (2019), Himachal Pradesh (2004) and Odisha(2008). Given the extent of disguised unemployment in agriculture and the limited scope for non-farm job generation in rural areas, “urban non-agrarian sectors” such as government, IT sector, and industrial zones are targeted for JRFL. But this is precisely where employers want market forces to operate. JRFL can be seen as a knee-jerk reaction by politicians to the migrant workers’ crises induced by Covid-19. JRFL is but a manifestation of “identity politics”; it has been a strategy on which political movements and parties like the DMK, Shiv Sena were built.

Inter-state (or country) migrant workers (ISMW) make a significant contribution to local economies, but are seen as “problematic” by the host States. They constitute a cheap and dispensable reserve army of workers. So industry pitches for them. The Constitution allows for free movement of migrants in the labour market. Migration solves skill-deficits in local economies and imparts dynamism to the labour market. Then, why do several governments go for JRFL?

The migrants’ crisis in the wake of Covid-19 has given a new twist to identity politics. Suddenly, it has dawned on the polity that the ISMW constitutes a sizeable “under- or un-used” electorate as they often do not exercise voting rights. If these workers and potential migrants could be retained through JRFL and provided with jobs the ruling parties’ electoral causes will be served.

The native unemployment issue assumes relevance as joblessness has intensified in the context of shrinking government employment in the neoliberal period. Further, JRFL will not only retain talent but also incomes which otherwise will go to “other regions”.

While restricting labour mobility, JRFL is a form of affirmative action that adds to Constitutionally promised job reservations. The “native ownership” articulation is that children of the soil should benefit from “their” resources. Hence, a nuanced “partitioned” view of the Nation is constructed. In fact, Karnataka government has argued that owing to the “language barrier” non-Kannadiga workers suffered from more accidents, and hence a jobs’ preference to those with 15-years of domicile and Kannadiga-literacy!

If the industry is apprehensive of JRFL, in turn a host of concessions including flexible (and even suspended) labour laws are offered to attract capital. Ruling parties’ trade unions are reined in.

JRFL amounts to carving out ‘countries’ within a country. It is based on a dubious assumption that skills in the local market are ubiquitous. The migrants’ crisis, however, shows up the failure of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. JRFL militates against political and economic freedoms. But it has its own political and economic logic.

The writer is Professor, HRM Area, XLRI