Open borders within India (part 1)

What are some examples of large multilingual zones with internal open borders? The EU (particularly the Schengen area) comes to mind, but it’s relatively recent, and most parts of the EU are quite well-developed. A perhaps more interesting example, particularly for those concerned about the Third World, is internal open borders and intranational migration within India.

I intend to cover India in a series of two blog posts, of which this is the first one. This post (part 1) discusses the size and diversity of India, whether India truly has open borders, relations with nearby countries, secesssionist movements, and overall migration statistics. In part 2, I’ll look more closely at local attitudes to migration, the economic data on migrant performance, as well as episodes with unusually high levels of immigration and emigration for specific regions, usually in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.

Size and diversity of India, compared with Europe and Africa

The population of India is a little over 1.2 billion. Compare this with the population of Europe (about 800 million), Africa (about 1.1 billion), and the European Union (about 500 million).

India is linguistically diverse. Hindi is the most widely used native language in India, and it is the main language of North India, though it comes in many dialects, many of which differ considerably from the version taught in schools. There are an estimated 180 million native speakers of Hindi, or about 15% of India’s total population, though probably a larger percentage of the population (perhaps up to 50%) has a working knowledge of Hindi sufficient for rudimentary oral communication (such as in shops or restaurants). Due to linguistic diversity, English is widely used as a language of official communication within the country, and English fluency is considered a marker of high status, opening access to a wide range of jobs. Wikipedia lists 22 major regional languages in India, each with its own well-developed script and grammar. Some of these languages, including Hindi, have well-developed literatures of their own, and some have movie industries (the biggest of these, Bollywood, is the world’s second largest movie industry after Hollywood, and might well overtake Hollywood on some metrics in the near future). The linguistic diversity of India is in the same ballpark as that of the European Union, which lists 24 official languages and 3 semi-official languages. India and the EU are also similar in that English plays an important role as a language for official communication. While English knowledge of the EU residents as a whole is greater than that of Indians, the most educated Indians probably have comparable English knowledge to the corresponding top slice of EU residents (outside the United Kingdom), because the bulk of higher education in India is in English.

Intranational disparities in income, wealth, and other indicators in India are comparable to those between EU countries, with the most extreme gaps being in the 2-3X range, except for a few very small and highly prosperous states (Sikkim in the case of India, Luxembourg in the case of the European Union). Compare the list of Indian states by GDP and list of European countries by GDP (PPP) per capita. (This post by my co-blogger Hansjoerg Walther might also be of interest). In the European Union, the most prosperous countries are in the northwest (UK, France, Germany) and the Nordic area (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark). In India, Punjab in the north is relatively prosperous due to agriculture, and the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and the southern states are prosperous due to a mix of proximity to sea ports and a relatively more educated and modern population. The poorest states are the north-eastern states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and others in the central part of India.

I’m not aware of research that attempts to compute place premia within India, but my guess is that they’d be somewhat but not much narrower than the gaps in GDP per capita. In other words, I do think that skill differences account for part of the wage difference, but the huge scale of internal migration (discussed later in this post) suggests that people do see wage gains upon migrating.

It’s more truly open borders than China

The Chinese government has heavily restricted migration in a fairly systematic way for quite some time via the Hukou system, although they seem to be relaxing these controls. In India, the freedom of movement within the country is enshrined in the Constitution of India (see Fundamental Right #2 in the list of fundamental rights), and there are, to the best of my knowledge, no generic de jure or de facto legal barriers to migration. There do exist barriers to effective access to welfare state privileges associated with residency, and access to some government services and privately provided services is hindered due to a lack of knowledge of the regional language (particularly so for people who lack fluency in English and even more so for people who don’t know Hindi either) — more on this later in the post. But as far as the physical act of movement and relocation goes, “open borders” is certainly the right term. It’s not different in any meaningful way from freedom of movement between the member states of the United States.

Border relations with nearby countries

India has open borders with two of its land neighbors, Nepal (more here) and Bhutan. Relations with other neighbors are somewhat more hostile: Pakistan and India have tense relations largely due to disputes over Kashmir. India also shares a border with China, Bangladesh, and Burma (Myanmar) but does not have open borders with any of them. Tibet, which is close to India, has also sent many refugees to India.

India is physically close to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a short distance over water from the southern tip of India. Relations with Sri Lanka have been tense and have fluctuated over the years (long story).

Anyway, with the exception of Nepal and Bangladesh, none of the other countries have sent significant numbers of migrants to India, either in absolute terms or as a fraction of their populations, nor have Indians emigrated to these countries in great numbers. So for the most part, India is a closed system with internal open borders but little human interchange with the nearby world. There is emigration to faraway places (skilled emigration to the First World, plus some emigration to the Gulf States and other parts of the world) but a discussion of that gets us too far afield.

Secession movements in India

How has India managed to survive as a single country for so long? That’s a puzzle with perhaps no satisfactory answer. There have been a number of separatist movements. See this Wikipedia page for more information. None of the movements have continued for a very long time, and the grievances expressed in the movements have usually been either suppressed or accommodated through “keyhole solutions” (such as carving out a separate smaller state for the aggrieved parties, allowing for official recognition of their language, etc.). Some of the nationhood demands may well have been ambit claims, though I don’t have enough subject matter knowledge to be definitive.

The main exception is Kashmir, where a non-negligible fraction of the population has been interested in seceding from India for a considerable length of time, some of them desiring independence and others wanting Kashmir to join Pakistan. Pakistan too has had a vested interest in Kashmir. Kashmir’s accession to India was accomplished via the decisions of an unelected ruler and a popular political leader back in 1947, but the decision may not have had strong support on the ground, and Pakistan’s government has had a vested interest in helping foment dissatisfaction against the Indian government.

With the exception of Kashmir and smaller movements in the North-East, secession movements have not been active in India of late. I expect that if India’s economic growth continues apace, popular support for secession will continue to fall, as people prefer access to a wider economy over forming a nation better suited to their ethnic self-concept.

A single state with open borders versus the benefits of many different competing states

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the ideas of federalism and subsidiarity — rather than having a single government catering to a large population, it’s better to have many smaller governments catering to smaller populations. This allows for more experimentation (e.g., Tiebout competition). But, in the world as it stands today, the fragmentation into smaller governments comes at a huge cost: the states inevitably put migration restrictions and trade tariffs, leading to economic inefficiency. Whether the benefits of “letting a thousand nations bloom” outweigh the costs of restricted trade and migration is a difficult question. In the case of India, my guess is that:

  • India’s overall prosperity would be lower (perhaps comparable with Pakistan or Bangladesh, though probably a bit better) if it had split up into multiple nation-states that had peaceful relations but imposed restrictions on trade and migration with each other.
  • There would be more variation between the economic regions of India. I expect that the most prosperous states of India would probably do about as well as the most prosperous states of India do today, but the least prosperous would do considerably worse. It’s possible, though, that politics would have moved somewhat differently, and some states would have done better as independent states. There is more uncertainty at the level of individual states.
  • There would be a higher probability of a few impressive success stories, i.e., countries with income levels similar to Mexico or Malaysia, under a split. But I don’t think any particular region of India could predict with high probability that that particular region would take off as a success story, so in expectation, I still think most regions would be better off staying as part of India.

Of course, in principle, there is no conflict between having separate nation-states and having open borders and free trade, and my intuition is that this might well be optimal, but the option is currently not really on the table. One possible move in that direction, without sacrificing national unity, would be to move towards shifting more responsibilities to the states rather than the central (federal) government. This is unlikely to happen because the manner of separation of duties is specified in the Constitution, and currently heavily favors the central government, even giving it precedence on items that are in a joint list (the Concurrent List).

Migration within India

There is a fair amount of internal migration in India, though the data isn’t of sufficiently high quality to judge how well it fits with economic models. The Migration Policy Institute article titled Internal Labor Migration in India Raises Integration Challenges for Migrants by Rameez Abbas and Divya Varma offers an excellent overview of what’s known, and includes references to other online and offline material on the subject. The following are some highlights:

  • A huge amount of intranational migration is rural-to-urban migration. Unsurprisingly, the states with the most rural populations (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) are the states that send the most migrants to other states.
  • In general, migration flows seem to go from states with lower per capita income to states with higher per capita income, and the same phenomenon is observed for intra-state migration. But this is closely related to the phenomenon of migration being rural-to-urban.
  • The 2001 census recorded 191 million people who had migrated to a faraway district or different state. This was 20% of the population at the time. About 70% of internal migrants were women, and their main motive for migration was marriage. Males who migrated were largely motivated by economic reasons (looking for jobs). The total proportion of migrants is close to 30% but this also includes people who migrate short distances to nearby places. (This UNICEF report from 2012 also gives the 30% figure).
  • A large fraction of labor migration is short-term migration. The migrants are generally not highly skilled, but it’s unclear how their skill level compares with the population as a whole, given that the Indian population in general is not highly skilled. Most labor migrants are employed in a few key subsectors, including construction, domestic work, textile and brick manufacturing, transportation, mining and quarrying, and agriculture.

The article identifies the following challenges for migrants:

  • Documentation and identity: Migrants often lack appropriate documents to establish their identity and establish residency and therefore have trouble accessing both government-provided and privately provided services.
  • Housing: Migrants typically live in slums in conditions that are often more crowded than where they came from. The informal nature of their housing adds to the challenge of establishing residency necessary for accessing various services.
  • Limited access to formal financial services: We’ll discuss this more in part 2.
  • Political exclusion: We’ll discuss this more in part 2.
  • Rampant exploitation: We’ll discuss this more in part 2.

Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll look more closely at local attitudes to migration, the economic data on migrant performance, as well as episodes with unusually high levels of immigration and emigration for specific regions, usually in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.

Open Borders Allow People, Not Their Place of Birth, To Control Their Lives

Fabio Rojas has written that to convince the public to support open borders, advocates “need a simple and concise idea that undermines the belief that people from other countries must be forcibly separated from each other. This idea must subtly, but powerfully, undermine the distinctions that make people believe that only citizens have the right to travel and work without impair.”  He suggests that this idea must appeal to “basic moral intuition” and that “lengthier academic arguments,” while persuasive, are ineffective.  I propose the following intuitive, simple message to help convince people to favor open borders: Open borders allow people, not their place of birth, to control their lives.

The content of this message is not original, although the wording may be.  The content is borrowed in part from John Lee,  who has implored, “… let’s not use birth as a reason to deny those less fortunate than us some of the same opportunities you and I had.”  Similarly, R. George Wright of Indiana University has written, in “Federal Immigration Law and the Case for Open Entry,” how those with the “undeserved good fortune to have been born in the United States resist… accommodation of the undeservedly less fortunate.”

There are several reasons why this message may resonate with the public.  First, it refers to “people,” not “immigrants.”  Using Fabio’s language, this “undermines the distinctions” between those in immigrant receiving countries and would-be immigrants by emphasizing the common humanity between both groups.  Second, at least for the American public, its emphasis on “control” taps into commonly held values of individualism and self reliance.  Third, again at least in an American context, the idea that birthplace should not be permitted to negatively impact opportunity connects with the widely accepted notion that people should not be discriminated against based on congenital traits such as gender and skin color.

To humanize the message, examples of people constrained by conditions in their birth country must be provided. An powerful example would be the Dalits, or “untouchables,” of India.  A report   by two Dutch organizations explains the plight of this group:  “The caste system divides people on the basis of birth into unequal and hierarchical social groups. Dominant castes enjoy most rights and least duties, while those at the bottom – the Dalits–in practice have few or no rights. They are considered ‘lesser human beings’, ‘impure’ and ‘polluting’ to other caste groups. Untouchables are often forcibly assigned the most dirty, menial and hazardous jobs, such as cleaning human waste. Caste discrimination is outlawed in India, but implementation of legislation is lacking. It is estimated that in India there are around 200 million Dalits.” (page 9)  A Mother Jones article on abusive conditions for girls who work in garment factories in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu describes the situation in a village where some of girls come from: “Most of the tea workers are from the lower castes and make about $3 per day; it costs a month’s salary just to outfit a child with books and a uniform for school.”

Another example of conditions ruling lives is provided by Luis Alberto Urrea in The Devil’s Highway, which chronicles the suffering of a group of Mexicans who crossed into the U.S. through the Arizona desert in 2001.  Mr. Urrea notes the economic conditions at the time in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, where several of the individuals in the group came from:  “The people were killing themselves working the ranchos on the outskirts.  The fishermen couldn’t catch enough protein in the sea.  The cane cutters couldn’t cut enough cane.  The small peasant farmers couldn’t get good enough prices to cover the costs of planting and harvesting their coffee… Prices kept rising, and all families… were able to afford less and less.  Food was harder to come by: forget about telephones, clothes, cars, furniture.  Even chicken feed… was expensive.  Pampers, milk, baby formula, shoes, tuition, tools, medicine… Between Americanized prices for their frijoles, and the unpredictable spikes in the price of tortillas, the Veracruzanos sometimes didn’t even know how they would feed their families.” (pp. 44-45)

Beyond poor economic conditions, there are also numerous situations to be cited in which people’s lives are controlled by unsafe conditions in their home countries, such as the civil wars in Syria and Central African Republic.  Even without mass conflict, in many countries the average person has little protection from the violent whims of others.  In a recent column entitled “The Republic of Fear,” David Brooks notes that in many countries, especially in the developing word, unless a person is part of a wealthy, powerful elite, he cannot “take a basic level of order for granted.”  Mr. Brooks writes that “People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order.” As I have written previously, women especially have little protection from family members or strangers in many parts of the world.

Lack of control over one’s life is especially apparent in parts of the world where people cannot practice their religion, cannot choose what they wear, cannot marry whom they want, or cannot be openly gay.  In western countries that value such freedoms, emphasizing the opportunity open borders would provide individuals to acquire these freedoms should particularly resonate with the public.

The message emphasizing control also must be accompanied by evidence that open borders would not negatively impact the lives of most people in immigrant receiving countries and that there would be mechanisms instituted to compensate those who might experience economic losses from open borders.  (Vipul has summarized these mechanisms.)  The Immigration Policy Center site provides more such evidence, as does this site (Here, here, here, and here).

It is true that no one has total control over their lives.  Even in advanced countries, the family environment in which we were raised, our natural abilities, and our health often determine our options.  The idea in the message Open borders allow people, not their place of birth, to control their lives is to remove place of birth as a limiting factor.

Hopefully advocates will reach a consensus on a simple, powerful message supporting open borders that will resonate with the public.  The message promoted here can be a starting point.

Weekly OBAG roundup 06 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Thought-provoking general questions or general observations

Discussions of specific historical or current situations

A conceptual framework for empirical analysis of migration (introduction)

Is migration good or bad for indicator X (here, X could be wages, employment levels, self-reported happiness, crime, welfare state use, moral virtue, etc.)? The question, as posed, is ill-defined. The ambiguity could arise from different meanings or interpretations of indicator X. But there’s also considerable ambiguity in the “Is migration good or bad” part of the question. Good or bad for whom? Compared to what?

I was moved to write this post series after an aborted attempt at trying to synthesize what different people had said about the effects of migration. Often, the people were talking past each other, measuring slightly different things. There’s a question of what we should measure, i.e., what measurement is the most appropriate one. But a first step is knowing that it’s possible to be measuring many different things. This post series attempts to clarify the range of things one could be measuring and how they relate to one another.

The series is structured as follows:

  1. Part 1: direct empirical measurement focuses on something that can be computed through direct empirical measurement: the performance of people who stay put in their countries, and the performance of people who migrate from one country to another.
  2. Part 2: comparative statics, multiple matrices discusses how to compare different policy regimes or scenarios for migration. Such comparisons typically involve counterfactuals and cannot be settled completely by empirical data: we need a model, and there’s considerable model uncertainty even if the data is excellent.
  3. Part 3: simplified model assuming no changes to non-migrants considers a simplified situation where we assume that migration at the margin primarily affects migrants and not the natives of either sending or receiving countries. The question is then about how migrants fare relative to the counterfactual where they are not allowed to, or were unable to, migrate. We’ll consider rank-ordering and quantitative comparison of natives of the source country, natives of the target country, potential migrants if they can migrate, and potential migrants if they cannot migrate.
  4. Part 4: Models for migrant performance considers different models for how migrant performance might be predictable in terms of the performance of the source and target countries.
  5. Part 5 discusses the descendants of migrants, and in particular the interaction with diaspora dynamics.
  6. Part 6 wraps up by considering some subtleties that were omitted in the preceding discussion.

The series also includes a number of minor mathematical digressions. If you have a reasonable background in mathematics (up to basic calculus and linear algebra, to the level generally needed for social scientists) you should be able to follow these. But you can otherwise skip the mathematical digressions without loss of continuity.

Choice of analytical focus

Despite the bewildering array of possibilities we’ll consider, there’s a high chance that the model used in the series will remain wanting. We’ll defer a detailed (but still partial!) discussion of the shortcomings to part 6, but a few preliminary remarks might be helpful.

A broad remark worth making is that the analysis in the coming parts will focus heavily on the migrant’s country of origin/birth (the “source country”) as well as the migrant’s country of current residence (the “target country”). We’ll also consider the distinction between migrants and non-migrants. This suggests that there are only three important components to the person’s identity that carry importance in statistical aggregation: the source country, the target country, and whether the person is a migrant. While other attributes can vary, we’re not interested in using them as the basis for grouping, since we’re aggregating over them.

But the reality is more complicated. Religious and ethnic identities can be subnational or supranational. Lebanese Muslims and Lebanese Christians may be best viewed as separate groups (though there are some cultural similarities and they’re probably genetically close to identical). In the United States, the Native Americans (American Indians) may be better viewed as a separate subgroup. On the other hand, sometimes it may be better to consider ethnic or ideological groupings that cut across national lines, such as Scandinavian, Western European, Anglo-American, Arab Muslim, Sunni Mulim, Shia Muslim, sub-Saharan African, Hindu, or ethnically Chinese.

The reason for our singular focus on nationality is simply that immigration law as it currently stands gives extreme importance to national boundaries and national membership. It may be ironic that, on a website devoted to critiquing the existing global regime of borders and migration controls, and the rigidity of national identity enforced by laws, a series of blog posts so meekly follows the status quo. My only excuse is that one needs to start somewhere. But you should feel free to fill in your own variations of the ideas based on forms of identity that do not coincide with one’s place of birth and one’s current residence, rather than wait to get to part 6.

Where’s the data?

As I go over different aspects of the model, you might be tempted to ask: can one actually construct the data that’s needed to do the quantitative comparisons and answer the various questions I pose? Data does exist for some things but not for others. The data for the model discussed in part 1 is relatively good. For the model in part 2, there is considerable model uncertainty, so rather than standardized data, we generally have to rely on individual pieces of research that attack specific instances. Often, the absence of data will illustrate the underlying point, namely, that obtaining clear answers to some questions is hard. It’s best to view this conceptual framework more as a tool to encourage clear thinking than as something in which we can plug in numerical values and answer questions.

If you’re interested in learning about existing data sets on migration, take a look at the migration information web resources page on this website.

Open borders between hostile nations

This blog post is an expanded version of a comment I posted on the Open Borders Action Group. It’s about whether hostile nations can or should have open borders, and how close a world would be to open borders if countries had open borders for all countries except those where they had nation-to-nation hostility.

In principle, one might say that having open borders with all countries except the few that the nation is officially hostile to is almost as good as having complete open borders. In most cases, a given nation is hostile to only one or two other nations, so curtailing the freedom to move to those specific nations is not that big an imposition. After all, if two nations with populations of a hundred million each closed their borders only to each other, that still leaves the residents of each nation access to the remaining ~7 billion of the world’s population and over 90% of the world economy. Isn’t that close enough to open borders?

In practice, though, countries with hostile relations aren’t random pairings — often the hostile relations are linked with shared cultural elements, a common language, family ties across the border, and interest in specific geographic locations. This is partly because hostilities arise from war, secession, or controversial historical reconfigurations of boundaries that failed to account for realities on the ground, often because it’s intrinsically impossible (see here, here, and here for more on how borders have been drawn historically around the world). Thus, cutting off people’s access to the hostile nation is a disproportionately large imposition relative to what the population sizes alone would suggest.

Now, it could still be argued that in some cases, the existential threat of free movement is so severe that, unfortunate as it is, free migration between the hostile nations cannot be permitted. But, as with many arguments to close borders, such arguments should be examined critically and appropriate keyhole solutions worked out wherever possible.

An additional point: looking at the most challenging situations for open borders can help us test the limits of the strength of the case for open borders. It can help explain just how far we believe the right to migrate stretches, and just where people who claim to be open borders advocates draw the line. I carried out a similar exercise earlier when considering denial of migration for people based on their criminal records.

Special dangers

Special benefits

High levels of cultural exchange, family ties, and commercial interaction give people in both countries vested interests in the preservation and safety of members of the other country. Free migration and free trade can facilitate these and make the world safer and more prosperous.

It’s not clear whether government leaders want these benefits. Those who derive their power from aggressive hawkish stances may find their authority undermined by friendly ties with hostile neighbors. But not all politicians fit this category. Further, politicians can sometimes combine hawkish rhetoric with the promotion of cultural interchange, getting the best of both worlds: the economic and cultural benefits and the support of people who care about national pride.

Temporary diplomatic standoffs

In cases where nations have temporary diplomatic standoffs over the actions of national leaders that don’t necessarily have popular support in either country, it doesn’t make sense to curtail migration — it’s highly unlikely that individuals in the country bear each other much ill-will. Ending free movement might turn a temporary standoff into long-term rivalry. Examples of such temporary standoffs arise when a government in one country clandestinely (often without the knowledge or support of its own citizens) supports a rebel faction, or an incumbent who eventually gets deposed, during infighting in the other country. The focus in this post is not on such instances but rather on cases where there seem to be enduring feuds based on long-term grievances. This article on how the West should respond to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine makes a similar point.

Some examples

The following are some examples of hostile nations that may be considered tough cases for the open borders paradigm:

  • North Korea and South Korea: This example is perhaps too unusual, because the main constraint here is not immigration restrictions but emigration restrictions put in place by North Korea. For more on North Korea, see here.
  • India and Pakistan: The countries were created as a result of the 1947 Partition of India, with a lot of bloodshed accompanying the creation. There is considerable mutual hostility over the disputed territory of Kashmir. More on India and Pakistan in a separate blog post. You can also get a good historical primer on the countries here.
  • Israel and Palestine: This is a highly asymmetric situation in many ways. Israel is internationally recognized and has considerably greater military might. Palestine is not internationally recognized and does not have a strong government, but there have been many suicide terrorists from the area attacking locations in Israel. We hope to write more, but for now, you might want to check out this post.
  • Russia and its neighbors (Ukraine, Georgia): There are land disputes between Russia and some of its neighbors, due to inherently contested boundaries. You might want to check out co-blogger Nathan Smith’s post, and we hope to write more about these issues later. This article (also linked from the temporary diplomatic standoffs section of the post) has an interesting relevant quote:

    Georgian policy towards Putin is a good example, I think. The Georgian government abolished visas for Russian tourists in spite of the tough relations between the two countries. Lots of Russians had an opportunity to see with their own eyes what was really happening in Georgia and how the market-oriented anti-corruption reforms affected the society.

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan: There may be more about these countries on our blog later. Some good articles to read are here, here, and here.
  • China and Taiwan: We’ll have more about this pair of countries on our blog later. Some good initial articles to read are here, here, here, here, and here.

There are many other examples of countries that have disputes over specific territories. There are also some examples of intranational borders to keep competing factions within a country from attacking or getting into conflicts with each other. Examples include the peace line in Northern Ireland and the green line in Lebanon.

We hope to explore these situations in greater depth in future blog posts. Any other examples of hostile nations worth discussing? Any historical examples? Any general considerations I missed in my opening remarks above?