The Bangladesh High Commissioner to India, Syed Muazzam Ali, famously declared in a debate on illegal migration to India that “people of Bangladesh would prefer to swim the Mediterranean and go to Italy than come to India.”
The honourable High Commissioner is not the first one. There are others who have expressed similar sentiments. In 2018, Rehman Sobhan, founding member of Bangladesh’s Planning Commission, said, “I cannot imagine that today there would be a great many Bangladeshis interested in moving towards the Northeast. Bangladesh’s economy is booming; the Northeast is a relatively less developed economy… If anything, we should be attracting people from the Northeast.”
Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Print, takes this further when he said in episode 342 of Cut the Clutter (8.54 mins) that as Bangladesh’s economy began to improve in 1990… “the so-called economic refugees stopped coming to India”. In fact, episode 340 of Cut the Clutter centres around the rapid strides made by Bangladesh and the improbability of economic migration in recent times.
In the context of the heated debate around NRC in Assam and the CAA protests, this line of argument throws a massive curveball in the long-held belief in Assam that there continues to be illegal migration to the state.
Let’s look at some facts. Bangladesh’s economy is growing at a fast clip. At 8.1 %, Bangladesh is not only growing much faster than India, but it is one of the fastest growing economies of the world. As per 2017 data, the GDP per capita in Bangladesh of $1,563, compares favourably with that of West Bengal $1,564 and is higher than Assam’s $1263.
On human development parameters like life expectancy, global hunger index and infant mortality rate, Bangladesh fares better than India.
However, it will be a folly to draw simplistic conclusion based on this data without getting into the details and without taking into account the realities and nuances of migration from Bangladesh. To start with, Bangladesh’s rapid growth has not been uniform across the country. There are huge regional imbalances within the country. The northern part of Bangladesh (bordering Assam and North Bengal), primarily the Rangpur and Rajshahi division, are among the most underdeveloped regions of the country.
The Rangpur division on the border of Assam and North Bengal suffers from the scourge of Monga — a natural famine that hits twice a year. It is also the poorest division in Bangladesh with 42% population living below the poverty line. The Kurigram district in the Rangpur division that borders the Dhubri district of Assam has the ignominious distinction of being the poorest district in Bangladesh. In fact, even as recent as 2016, Kurigram had close to 71% households below the poverty line, as per Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES 2016). The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies identified lack of access to institutions and resources, lack of skills and sustainable livelihood option and poor infrastructure and market linkage, as some of the key reasons of underdevelopment.
Do the poor of Rangpur and Rajshahi division, especially the marginalised landless farmers, daily wage workers or poor unemployed, have an incentive to migrate across the borders? The logical answer will be yes.
Why Assam, why not Rome?
The second line of argument is that economic migrants from Bangladesh would rather go to Middle-East and Europe where income opportunities are much higher, rather than Assam. While this is true in principle, regional imbalances as shown in data from Bangladesh tell a different story.
As the eighth most populated country in the world, Bangladesh is a major supplier of labour force to many countries in the world. The Bangladesh think tank RMMRU in its 2018 report acknowledged that “remittances sent by the Bangladeshi labour migrants have played a critical role” in transforming Bangladesh into a lower-middle income country by 2017. The World Bank estimates that based on a five-year average, remittances by migrant workers account for about 9 per cent of Bangladesh’s GDP. Also, according to the World Bank, migration of millions of Bangladeshi workers eases the pressure on the domestic economy by absorbing up to half a million workers each year.
However, again there is a big regional skew on flow of migrant workers from Bangladesh. An overwhelming majority of migrant labour from Bangladesh are from Central, South and South East Bangladesh. Districts like Comilla, Brahmanbaria, Tangail and Dhaka have traditionally been the biggest source districts of migrant labours for the world. Northern Bangladesh — Rangpur and Rajshahi division lag far behind their counterparts in the other parts of Bangladesh, in sending migrant labour.
According to the World Bank, only 10% of Bangladeshi workers migrate through formal and legal channels. A large number of Bangladeshis go through middlemen and agents. The cost of paying an agent to migrate to the Middle-East, South East Asia or Europe is relatively high and can only be afforded by a well-off migrant. No wonder, a great majority of migrant workers to these countries come from relatively prosperous south and central Bangladesh.
For the poor and the marginalised landless farmers in Northern Bangladesh, it is far easier and convenient to just walk or take the boat across the 4,156-kilometre-long soft and porous border, between India and Bangladesh. The similarity in language and culture of border areas and historical ties also make it very easy to mingle in. For many of these economic migrants, Assam and Bengal provide the easy base to move to the Indian metros. The recent crackdown on illegal Bangladeshi migrants working in Bangalore is a case in point.
Did the steady migration to Assam that started in the 19th century, from what is now the geographical boundaries of Bangladesh, suddenly come to a standstill in the 1990s or even 2000s? It will not just be naivety, but a grave mistake to make this assumption. As the debate and discussions around CAA take a religious dimension and narrative of persecuted Hindus take centre stage, it becomes even more relevant to not lose sight of the realities of economic migration to India from our South Asian neighbour.
(Senjam Raj Sekhar is senior communicator who has held leadership positions in several Indian and multinational companies. Views are personal)