Local interests, migrant workers, and fake news
A demographic shift in the state has created space for migrants in Tamil Nadu and the state also needs them. It must watch for anti-migrant sentiment, but also false narratives
Reports of alleged incidents of violence against migrant workers in Tamil Nadu are disturbing, but not for the usual reason. They are disturbing because some of the reports (and videos) have been proved to be false, raising questions on who could gain from an orchestrated campaign to spread violence in the southern state, which desperately needs migrant workers. As the earliest state in the country to launch an effective (albeit skewed against the forward castes) social affirmation programme, Tamil Nadu has seen a vast improvement in social indicators, especially across health and education. The programme has also meant that much of the local population that may have once been engaged in unskilled and semi-skilled labour has since moved on to skilled jobs that pay more. The resulting vacuum, and the fact that the state has among the highest minimum wages in the country has made it attractive to migrants, especially those from the northeastern and eastern parts of the country.
A demographic shift in the state has created space for migrants. Tamil Nadu’s net replacement rate of the population has fallen to a level that means its population has started shrinking, albeit gradually. Moreover, the median age of the state is the second highest in the country (after Kerala) — in absolute terms, Tamil Nadu is almost 12 years older than Bihar, and 10 years older than Uttar Pradesh. Tamil Nadu has been cognisant of these changes. For instance, even five years ago, some local administrations were hiring Bengali teachers for government schools to cater to the children of migrant workers. None of this is to suggest a cultural clash isn’t possible, although, fortunately for Tamil Nadu, food is unlikely to be a problem; the state is one of the highest consumers of meat in the country (only Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and West Bengal have a higher proportion of meat eaters). Language could be one, though, given how sensitive the state’s government and residents are about their own, and what they see as the Centre’s efforts to impose Hindi. And insecurity about jobs in a slowing economy may well be another. The state government must stay alert on this front, and act promptly and responsibly at the first signs of anti-migrant worker sentiment.
As it should on attempts to spread false narratives of the kind that have emerged now. The fake videos have stoked fear and anxiety among migrant workers. The Union government and the governments of Tamil Nadu, Bihar (and other northeastern states) should work together to nip these in the bud.