With the COVID-19 pandemic aggravating the economic crisis, an already existing insular tendency on employment matters has become more pronounced. On Tuesday, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan went a step ahead of his predecessor in announcing that all government jobs will be given to the “children of the state” — last year, the Kamal Nath government had directed industries in MP to provide 70 per cent reservation to people from the state. The MP chief minister seems to have also gone by the playbook made familiar recently by his counterparts in Haryana and Telangana. In July, the Haryana government approved a proposal for an ordinance reserving 75 per cent jobs in the private sector for local people. And, on August 5, the Telangana cabinet approved a policy to reserve 60 per cent of skilled jobs and 80 per cent of unskilled jobs in “new industries in the state”.
Conversations on reserving jobs for local people predate the pandemic, or the current economic crisis — the Shiv Sena’s “Marathi manoos” rhetoric is infamous. In the 1990s, the Gujarat government directed industries to employ 80 per cent local people. The state, however, stopped short of enacting a legislation on the issue, anticipating legal problems. A 2008 Maharashtra government policy — still in operation — requires industries that seek subsidies to employ 80 per cent local people. Some other states have used criteria such as language tests to accord preference to local people. But the dearth of jobs in several sectors in the past two years seems to have made the nativist sentiment much more strident and conspicuous.
Exigencies created by the economic downturn and the pandemic are, no doubt, compelling. But state-level protectionism is problematic. “Local”, for one, is a contentious category that could add to the country’s many fault lines. A long history of jurisprudence dating back to the 1950s makes the salient distinction between domicile and place of birth, between the place of education and work. A significant body of work has also underlined the role of labour fluidity in introducing skills, spurring innovation and enriching the cultural fabric of different regions. Moreover, reserving jobs for local people militates against the citizen’s fundamental right to move and work freely within India and the idea of the country as one market. State governments need to talk amongst themselves and with each other to address current insecurities, to keep job flows going — populist solutions to economic woes could end up doing more harm than good.