Do Politicians Discriminate Against Internal Migrants? Evidence from Nationwide Field Experiments in India

The forthcoming article “Do Politicians Discriminate Against Internal Migrants? Evidence from Nationwide Field Experiments in India” by Nikhar Gaikwad and Gareth Nellis is summarized by the author(s) below. 

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The world is urbanizing at a lightening pace. This is especially true in developing countries, as migrants relocate from rural areas to towns and cities in search of jobs, education, and cosmopolitan lifestyles. Yet shifting to new destinations is challenging. Poorer migrants often find themselves consigned to urban peripheries, and rank among the most marginalized classes of citizens in developing countries globally.  

In our new paper, “Do Politicians Discriminate Against Internal Migrants?” we theorize and investigate the kind of treatment internal migrants receive when they move to new destinationsIn particular, we test whether elected urban politicians treat migrants’ requests for basic constituency services similarly or differently to requests from long-term city residents (city “natives, so to speak).  

We suspect there to be at least three reasons why urban politicians would be less solicitous of migrant versus local requests. First, politicians may harbor prejudice against migrant “outsiders.” Second, they might channel the nativist preferences of the bulk of their voting constituents: locals who fear that the arrival of waves of newcomers will depress job opportunities in the area, create competition for scarce state resources, and lead to ethno-cultural “dilution.” Third, politicians may think that migrants will be unlikely to take part in local elections, curtailing incentives to respond to this group’s interests. 

Our test case for these claims is India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a large and growing stock of internal migrants (325 million, by some estimates). We gathered contact details for sitting municipal councilors in 28 major Indian cities. We then ran an unobtrusive auditsending each politician a brief postal letter from a fictitious citizen asking for help with a basic yet potentially consequential task—one over which local politicians are known to have sway (e.g. getting an income certificate or setting up a local government dispensary). Various features of the letters were randomized, including whether the petitioner said they had just moved to the city from another state, or were local to the area and had lived there all their lives. Each letter asked the councilor to give the requester a callback at a local number provided. For each letter, we record whether a callback was received. By comparing average callback rates across the citizen types, we can assess how much discrimination is induced by those citizen-attributes.  

We find that urban politicians are indeed less responsive to migrants: a migrant letter is three percentage points less likely to get a reply than a near-identical letter from a city native. Note that the average response rate for all letters was just 14 percent, underscoring how difficult it can be to get hold of urban councilors in these settings and how significant the anti-migrant penalty really is proportionally (24 percent).  

But what explains such maltreatment? A pattern of auxiliary results in the letters experiment didn’t reveal any telltale signs that politicians were personally prejudiced toward migrants or that they were fixated on standard nativist concerns (jobs or ethnic identity) in deciding whom to helpMeanwhile, two additional studies we conducted suggest that politicians’ re-election considerations may be the driving factor. In a second audit experiment, conducted via SMS text messages to elected councilors, we found that migrants mentioning that they were registered to vote locally were just as likely to get a reply as locals mentioning that they were registered; that is, the migrant penalty disappeared once registration status was clarified. Migrants mentioning that they were not registered were disadvantaged vis-à-vis registered migrantsFurther, in an endline survey, councilors reported that they believed recent migrants were unlikely to be enrolled on the city voter registers whereas city natives were highly likely to be so. In short, the stack of evidence suggests that politicians mete out unequal treatment to migrants because they don’t view them to active members of their electorates 

As it turns outpolitical elites have good reasons for thinking this to be the case. Surveys repeatedly show a shortfall in migrant voter registration and turnout rates. India, along with a swath of other developing democracies, operates an onerous voter-initiated registration system that is especially hard to navigate for those who move across electoral boundaries. In a new set of studies, we theorize reasons why internal migrants struggle to integrate politically into cities and test feasible solutions.  

About the Author(s): Nikhar Gaikwad is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University and Gareth Nellis is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego. Their research “Do Politicians Discriminate Against Internal Migrants? Evidence from Nationwide Field Experiments in India” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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