Migration to cities has been rising for decades. But migrants in big cities are among the most neglected social groups. An experiment from India shows politicians are more likely to respond to requests from locals than those from migrants.

The experiment is part of a study by Nikhar Gaikwad of Columbia University and Gareth Nellis University of California. Posing as fictitious citizens, they sent letters to 2,993 municipal councillors in 28 Indian cities. The letters sought help in solving simple problems such as availing income certificates and fixing street lamps.

Half of the letter-writers claimed to be migrants, and the others posed as long-term residents of the city. They had Hindu as well as Muslim names. The councillors were given a phone number to call back.

Only 407 councillors (14%) returned the call. Locals were 24% more likely than migrants to receive a response, the authors find. Citizens posing as workers in high-skill occupations found more favour. Hindu names in letters got 23% more responses than Muslim ones.

In another experiment, the councillors were sent help requests via text messages. But this time, the messages indicated whether the citizen was a registered voter in the city. The gap between residents and migrants declined, showing politicians treat both equally if they are voters in the city, the authors say.

A follow-up survey found that 97% of the councillors believed that a long-term resident would be a registered voter. The same figure for migrants was 51%. This could explain why they responded more to locals, the authors conclude.

For better representation and for politicians to heed welfare requests from migrants, it is important to encourage them to register for city elections, the authors conclude.

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

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