By Neeraj Kaushal/Times of India
If indeed India has a Bangladeshi problem, it’s resolving itself rapidly without costly government intervention
Many Indians believe the BJP narrative that millions of illegal Bangladeshis live in India, that their numbers have been multiplying fast, and that they should be identified, put in detention centres, and deported back to Bangladesh.
The official count based on Indian census data tells the opposite story. Far from rising, the number of Bangladeshis living in India has been steadily declining since 1991. Bangladeshis are the largest group of foreign-born living in India, but they account for a tiny 0.2% of the nation’s population. In 1991, 4.04 million people born in Bangladesh lived in India. The number has fallen steadily to 3.7 million in 2001 and to 2.7 million in 2011. A decline of one-third in two decades!
These data imply not a net inflow but a net outflow of Bangladeshis from India since 1991. If the trend continues, the number of Bangladeshis in India would be down to 1.7 million in the next census count, which will be held in 2021, and further to less than a million in another decade. If indeed there is a problem, it is solving itself without the need for any fresh government intervention.
The lesson for a fiscally constrained federal government is: Do not waste funds to conduct a nationwide National Register of Citizens to identify illegal Bangladeshis. Their number will have likely declined to under one million, maybe just half a million by the time the proposed NRC is concluded. Note that in Assam NRC took 10 years and cost Rs 1,200 crore. Since India’s population is almost 40 times higher than Assam’s, an all-India NRC could cost almost Rs 50,000 crore. Can this be a priority?
Sceptics dismiss census data on Bangladeshis as gross underestimates. A web search yields a wide range of estimates from 1.5 million to 15 million. But these are guesstimates and do not specify whether they are based on surveys or projections, or how reliable the methodologies are.
Skeptics argue that every census undercounts the illegals since Bangladeshis, fearful of detention or deportation, lie about their birthplace. Yes, many Bangladeshis would of course lie about their birthplace. Yet most of the reported decline in the 2011 census is in West Bengal (from 3.04 million in 2001 to 2.2 million in 2011), where fears of detention and deportation are lowest.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is dead against NRC. Her government has passed a resolution to not implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Misreporting by illegals will surely be the lowest in a state where not just TMC but Congress and CPM have long wooed Muslim voters, including those from Bangladesh. It might go up in today’s new climate, but the climate was quite placid in 2011. Even if the absolute number of illegals is questionable, the downward trend is not.
What about Bangladeshi emigration post-2011? Demographic and economic trends in the two neighbouring countries suggest that India’s economic attraction for Bangladeshi migrants has diminished, especially in Assam which is among the poorest and least economically dynamic of Indian states.
India’s per capita GDP is higher than Bangladesh’s. Being the largest economy in the subcontinent, India would arguably attract workers from neighbouring countries with lagging economies. In the decade 2001-2011, India’s annual GDP growth rate was 8%, much higher than Bangladesh’s 5.7%.
But after 2011 Bangladesh has more than caught up with India. During 2012-19 Bangladesh’s GDP growth was 7%, a wee bit higher than India’s 6.8%. Most dramatic of all, IMF estimates that Bangladesh’s GDP growth in the current year will be 8.1%, far above India’s 4.8%. Bangladesh suddenly looks more of a magnet for workers than India.
Demographic trends in the two countries also suggest that the push factors for Bangladeshis to emigrate to India are weak. Demographers have demonstrated that the emigrant flow is generally from high-fertility to low-fertility countries. In 1981, Bangladesh’s total fertility rate was 6.2 births per woman, way above India’s 4.8. But over the years Bangladesh’s fertility has fallen phenomenally. It may surprise many Indians that in 2017, the fertility rate in Bangladesh was down to 2.06, well below India’s 2.24.
On social indicators, Bangladesh has been outperforming India for decades. Bangladeshis enjoy a life expectancy of 72 years. Indians on average live four years less. Compared with India, Bangladesh has a lower infant, neonatal, and under-5 mortality rate, higher female literacy, and higher labour force participation of women. In 1971, Bangladesh was behind or at par with India on these indicators but has forged ahead in recent decades. Compared with Assam, Bangladesh’s performance is even better.
These economic and demographic trends make nonsense of the rhetoric of BJP on Bangladeshi immigrants into India. Union home minister Amit Shah has called them “termites” and “ghuspetiyas”, meaning intruders. BJP has enacted CAA and proposed a nationwide NRC. Hindutva believers passionately seek to catch and throw out a rising flood of illegals. But the census tells a very different picture of falling Bangladeshi numbers. We need to act on actual facts, not guesstimates and passionate rumours.
(The writer is Professor of Social Policy at Columbia University)