A close contemplation of the series of happenings around us points to the fact that the concept of migration is at the helm of alienation. Unfriendly hostility is evident everywhere, marked by the disapproval of people in accepting others in their own land. Article 19 of the Constitution of India provides its citizens the fundamental right to move freely throughout the territory of India and to reside and settle in any part of the country. However, recently the newly sworn in chief minister of Madhya Pradesh announced that his government would provide incentives to only those industries with employment of 70 per cent local staff. A few months ago, atrocities on a child in Gujarat by a migrant from Bihar working in a ceramic factory caused widespread violence of the locals against the migrants and triggered their exodus. The point is, the perpetrator was not seen as a criminal, but a ‘migrant’- his migration status overshadowing his criminal status.

Voluntary migration decisions within the country have historically been guided by economic factors, but today along with the socio-political scenario of the destination region, the acceptability of the migrants and their own inclination to assimilate with the dominant local culture seem to have emerged as pertinent factors.

Migration has been an integral part of the history of human mobility, with mutually beneficial migration occurring for long. The Marwaris had migrated to West Bengal during the British period as traders and moneylenders. They had even reached the peripheries, significantly contributing in the economic upliftment of the areas. In fact, since the Bengali community was primarily based on agriculture with only a handful of big native businessmen, the reins of business and trade in Bengal were quickly grabbed by Marwaris. They had also contributed in philanthropic activities by setting up institutions of education, health and technology.

Although there has been a dormant current of scepticism regarding the business practices of the business community, there have never been violent anti-Marwari movements in West Bengal. The state has also witnessed widespread influx of unskilled workers from Bihar and Odisha, who had been prevalent in informal self account activities like rickshaw pulling, cooking, plumbing, etc. A palpable Sikh population catering to the transport business, Chinese migrants engaged in the leather industry, restaurants and beauty parlours, all have been living harmoniously for decades. One of the reasons for the peaceful co-existence might be the fact that the occupation of the migrants has never crowded out the locals.

Presently, there has been a reversal in the migration trend, with a surge in outward migration from West Bengal, mostly to diamond cutting units in Gujarat and in construction sites and tea estates in Kerala. There seems to be a cyclical phenomenon of migration, with massive exodus of unskilled workers from Kerala to Gulf countries, creating a labour gap in the state, being filled up by inter-state migration. On the other hand, once a haven for migrants, West Bengal is witnessing a reversal in trends. There might be concerns about the lack of employment-creating industrialisation opportunities in a particular state, but hardly a feeling of crowding out among the natives by the migrants. Perhaps, this is due to nonoverlapping of sectors where the natives fit in better and where the migrants are engaged.

However, there are frequent instances of alienation of migrants that have been on the rise in the recent years. Gujarati and Parsee traders had long migrated to Bombay, eventually mainstreaming themselves with the local community. The economic opportunities offered by vibrant Mumbai had lured youth from different states, posing severe problems on civic amenities and housing. But after a brief spell in the 1960s, they were not intimidated.

The first recent anti-migrant undercurrent was felt in 2008, when there was a spurt of violent clashes between two political parties in Maharashtra on the issue of migrants from UP and Bihar. The escalation in violence caused large numbers of north Indian migrants to flee the state. The local industries, especially the small and medium industries were severely hit due to this large scale return migration. The irony is that research shows that about 70 per cent of migrants to Maharashtra cities are from the rural areas of the state, migration being of the rural-urban type.

The huge number of migrants in Chennai, mainly from the eastern part of India, working in construction, manufacturing and services have of late been subjected to stereotyping and disapproval. The discontent is particularly evident for those who migrated from the North-east. In fact, throughout India, the Northeastern community has been the target of derision, discrimination and violence. Notwithstanding the involvement of some North-eastern migrants in illegal activities, it seems widely unfair to brand all migrants as wrongdoers. Their contribution to the economy of the host state needs to be acknowledged.

The economics of migration create ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that induce people to migrate voluntarily in search of higher income and employment opportunities. Along with obvious benefits to the place of origin on account of employability, remittances, etc., migration also has favourable effects on destination regions. First, the migrant labour may fill the gap between supply and demand of labour, particularly in regions which are primarily agrobased and any industrialisation drive swells up the demand for labour. Secondly, as the Human Development Report, 2009 asserted, migrants increased employment, with no evidence of crowding out locals, and helped produce gains in such areas as social diversity and capacity for innovation.

Internal migration within the country has been perhaps the safest way to escape employment lags in the origin region or to head for better income in regions with higher scope of employment. The states that denounced migration did so usually in cases of illegal immigration from neighbouring countries that threatened national security. But today, the treatment meted out to migrants and the attitude of policymakers point towards a trade-off between migrants and locals, and an unwelcoming gesture that perhaps is a reflection of a myriad of social and political factors. Discontent, incompatibility and intolerance have trickled into the phenomenon of migration which now hardly remains an economic phenomenon.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Behala College, Kolkata.)