Opinion

Does India really have a Bangladeshi problem?

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on February 08, 2020 Published on February 08, 2020

Migrant issue: Needlessly politicised   -  REUTERS

The claims that millions from Bangladesh have crossed the border and stolen our jobs are simply being overstated

Here’s an easy quiz: What’s Bangladesh’s population? Answer: 163 million. Now that we have got that figure clear, let us make an assumption: Suppose 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population has silently slipped across the border to India and is working here illegally. That would work out roughly to around 16 million people, even if it does seem unlikely that 10 per cent of the country has moved here.

Exaggerated figure

The people who ring alarm bells about Bangladeshis reckon that there might even be 20 million of them working in India, though that calculation seems to be on the high side. Nevertheless, it is a figure that has been doing the rounds for more than a decade, according to migration specialist Chinmay Tumbe, professor of economics at IIM-Ahmedabad. Tumbe says the 20-million figure has no methodological basis backing it up. He notes that based on the Census, the number of people born in Bangladesh and living in India actually fell from 3.7 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2011 (that’s partly because many people who came across in 1947 and 1971 have died). And that falling trend was pan-India.

Still, let us take the 16-million figure and assume 10 per cent of Bangladesh has moved here. In any other country, the notion of 16 million immigrants would be good reason to ring alarm bells. The number would be over one-third more than Sweden’s 10-million population and approaching a quarter of Britain’s 69 million. But in India, we deal with numbers that are way beyond the imagination of people anywhere else in the world except, perhaps, China. It’s estimated our population will overtake China’s by around 2024.

India’s population is put at around 1.3 billion and rising swiftly. Even if we accept that 16 million Bangladeshis have shifted here, that would only be slightly over 1 per cent of our population.

Or, to put it differently: it’s a drop in the huge ocean of people that makes up our country.

No real concerns

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella remarked he would be thrilled if a Bangladeshi was to head an Indian tech company. That seems unlikely anytime soon. Quite the contrary. In fact, the impoverished Bangladeshis who migrate to India take up the lowest-of-the-low manual jobs, which locals often spurn. Recently, police deported several groups of Bangladeshis living in Bengaluru, who were working as manual scavengers or for garbage contractors.

In a similar vein, police in the Coorg district last month ordered plantation owners to round up all of their workers so that their papers could be checked carefully. And in Indore, BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya told an audience he had been suspicious that a group of workers at his house were “residents of Bangladesh” because they had “strange” eating habits — they were consuming poha and not rotis.

It’s certain that Bangladeshis in India haven’t graduated to white-collar jobs. Tumbe reckons that in around 500 of India’s 640 districts, the concentration of foreign immigrants stands at below 0.5 per cent.

Are these the ‘termites’ undermining India’s foundations that politicians have talked about? That seems like an unlikely scenario. Is there a danger of a Bangladeshi vote-bank influencing the course of elections? The only areas where there’s the slightest possibility of this is in Assam’s border areas, and possibly, West Bengal. Elsewhere, Bangladeshi migrants are too spread out to have any electoral impact. So, the issue is basically a political red herring.

There is an additional point that should be made. Many Bangladeshi migrants who have crossed to India are likely Hindus, for whom the BJP government is opening its arms wide and who might quickly qualify for citizenship under the CAA.

We should also remember that many Bangladeshis are setting their sights a bit higher nowadays, and are looking at emigrating to the Gulf or Europe. Also, Bangladesh’s economy is faring better these days, reducing the need to migrate to India. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been a good friend to India, has made it clear she is extremely annoyed by the CAA. Perhaps we should pause to ask whether the government is losing us friends and grossly exaggerating a problem that really isn’t a problem.

Published on February 08, 2020
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