Why domicile status is not relevant to India
Image used for illustrative purposes only.

Bibek Debroy

As a citizen, I should have the right to study, work and die anywhere within the country.

What is a domicile certificate? It is issued by a state government (or UT) and confirms that a person resides within a certain state. As a citizen, I should have the right to study, work and die anywhere within India. [Article 19(1)(d) of the Constitution says that.] I have lived in Delhi for years, but haven’t bothered to get a domicile certificate for Delhi. A domicile certificate is needed when there are job quotas for residents of the state, quotas in educational institutions and special fee structures in favour of a domiciled resident. Here is an explanation from a Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) circular:

“The Residence/Domicile Certificate is generally issued by the concerned authority of the State Government/Union Territory to prove that the person bearing the Certificate is a domicile/resident of the State/Union Territory by which the certificate is being issued. Such certificate is issued as proof of residence to avail Domicile/Resident quotas in educational institutions and in the State/Central Government services, as also in the case of jobs where preference to local residents is available as per government instructions from time to time.”

What this doesn’t mention is that a domicile certificate is sometimes, depending on the state, required for purchasing property (read land too) and establishing an enterprise. (One shouldn’t think only in terms of recent changes in J&K.) Across states, norms for granting a domicile certificate (it will typically be granted by the revenue department) also vary. Sometimes there are no fees. Sometimes, it takes two working days, sometimes fifteen.

Ever since all of us migrated out of Africa, thousands of years ago, migration in search of better economic opportunities has been going on. Cross-border migration raises a different set of issues. However, within the country, there is migration too: interstate and intrastate. Census data are old. (We don’t have any data after 2011.) From 2001 to 2011, 210 million people migrated. Most (88%) of migration was intrastate, from one district to another. Some 12% was interstate, from one state to another. Intrastate, women migrated more than men, explained by marriage. Interstate, men migrated more than women. 210 million may seem large. But that is over a decade and India’s absolute population is large.

The point is that interstate migration is low. It is low not only in comparison to a country like the USA, where migration from one place to another is fairly easy. It is also low compared to other large countries like Brazil and China. (In China, the hukou system controlled internal migration.) Migration, desirable though it is, is low in India. It is easy to think of barriers linked to culture and language, or transaction costs associated with migrating. For instance, unless the income of a household crosses a certain threshold, it is difficult to bear fixed costs of migration.

While this is true, notwithstanding what the Constitution says, we can’t ignore state government-induced barriers to migration. What is the Rajya Sabha? As originally contemplated, it was meant to represent the interests of states. That’s precisely what Section 3 of Representation of the People Act (1951) said. However, that Section was amended in 2003, removing the domicile requirement. This went to the Supreme Court (Kuldip Nayar v. Union of India, 2006) and the ruling was that Rajya Sabha was just a second chamber. There was a history behind the domicile requirement. But it is no longer relevant, not for Rajya Sabha. If it is not relevant for Rajya Sabha, why should it be relevant for ordinary citizens? It is one country, a point repeatedly mentioned when we speak of GST. If it is one country for the movement of goods and services, and trucks, it should be one country for the movement of people too.

Earlier, social welfare schemes were often linked to a domicile requirement, for instance, PDS (public distribution system). In the aftermath of Covid, these have become portable. More accurately, have they become portable if it is a Central Sector or Centrally Sponsored Scheme? Is it portable if it is a state-level scheme, funded from the state budget? Logically, it cannot be.

At random, I checked out two examples. In West Bengal, I want to register an enterprise under the Shops and Establishments Act and want to do it online, through the portal. I can’t do it without a domicile certificate. (I can probably do it without a domicile certificate, but will have to submit the form physically, not electronically.) In Haryana, I want to get a death certificate. Without a domicile certificate, I can’t do it online. A physical submission will be necessary. Notice that neither of these examples pertain to special privileges and dispensations. You might call them rights under the ease of living and ease of doing business heads and we have of course been talking about Aadhaar as national identity (for residents in India) and the multiplier benefits of digital public infrastructure (DPI). Domicile requirements and certificates negate these.

There is also the contentious issue of reservations, that is, special dispensations. Whatever be the politics and optics, all reservations are inherently inefficient. In programming and operation research language, they impose additional constraints and make decision-making sub-optimal. This is a general statement.

Specifically, there should neither be reservations for state residents in educational institutions and government jobs nor special fees and loans. So far as state-level, state-funded schemes are concerned, all such public expenditure should focus on the provision of collective goods in the state list of the Seventh Schedule. You will say these are pipe dreams, as no doubt they are. We are not yet ready. But in setting the template for Amrit Kaal, we should recognise that something is inefficient and sub-optimal, not in the spirit of India being one country. With that recognition, change will eventually come. Without that recognition, it will always be elusive.

I was born in Shillong, because my father migrated there from what is now Bangladesh. He built a house, sold a long time ago. Can I buy a house, or land, in Shillong today? I am not talking about alienation and sale of Khasi land to non-Khasis. I am talking about the “European Ward”, in and around Shillong, where sales are free. I can’t. Domicile gets in the way. My roots may have been in Shillong, but domicile has severed them.

(The writer is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM)