Friday, 31 August 2012

Volume of international in-migration in India

Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action


Recent ethnic strife in Assam and elsewhere in India has put the spotlight yet again on illegal migration from Bangladesh, which is assumed to be the root cause for unrest in the entire north-eastern region that threatens to spill over. Yet, illegal migration from especially from our eastern neighbor ceased to figure as a problem in talks between India and Bangladesh since 1992. Neither the Congress-led UPA nor the BJP-led NDA governments at the Centre raised the "problem" with Bangladesh, said sources in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Government of Bangladesh. However, the problem of large scale illegal migration exists.  What exactly is the magnitude of the illegal migration in India? Nobody knows. It is because no one has done a dispassionate study to find out the scale of migration[1]. “It's a highly emotive issue that recurs in political rhetoric," said former Intelligence Bureau Special Director R N Ravi, who handled north-east[2]. Other experts agree illegal migration has been politicized, but not addressed. Veena Sikri, ex-Indian high commissioner to Dhaka, said, “Bangladesh is in denial and there are no clear positions within India on the issue. India needs to quantify the problem in the interest of good bilateral relation”. An attempt has been made in this post to estimate  the level of international in- migration during the last decade (2001-11).

Since accurate data on migration is difficult to obtain, an indirect method has been used to estimate the figure by using census and vital statistics.  The population of a country/area grows or decreases as a result of both natural increase (births minus deaths) and net migration (in-migration minus out-migration). During the decade 2001-11, India’s population increased by more than 181.5 million[3]. During the corresponding period, however, natural increase of population was 178 million, as derived from the SRS (Sample Registration System) natural increase growth rate[4].  An analysis of these data reveals that India as a whole tends to be a ‘importer’   of people from overseas, and this probably explains in part why India's intercensal growth rate is slightly higher than its rate of natural increase (1.62% vs. 1.60%).

It appears that during the decade, around 3.5 million more people were enumerated in India than was expected. Now question arises who are these people?  Some of them came from other neighboring countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Myanmar, etc.  But most of remaining - around 3 million- came from Bangladesh alone, but illegally. 

An analysis of demographic data of Bangladesh supports this conclusion. According to UN Population Division, Bangladesh is a net out-migrating country. During the 2001-11 decade around 4.3 million Bangladeshi left the country.  “The realities of poverty, underemployment, and a large working-age population mean that international labor migration is an expected and necessary part of life for many Bangladeshi men and women”, writes Nazli Kibria[5] . Bangladesh has registered a 5 to 6 percent rate of annual economic growth since the mid-1990s, and has made important progress in the areas of primary education, population control, and the reduction of hunger. Despite these positive developments, however, poverty in Bangladesh is widespread, affecting the lives of perhaps half of the population. In this predominantly rural country, overpopulation and environmental degradation have contributed to a large, landless population. Kibria whites further that “widespread poverty, underemployment, and a youthful age structure have all contributed to the predominance of economically motivated international migration from Bangladesh”. Since the 1980s, Bangladesh has been an increasingly important source country in international flows of contract labor migration. The primary destinations for Bangladeshi migrants have been the Arab Gulf countries. According to the official figures of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET) of the Government of Bangladesh, over 5 million Bangladeshis migrated to work in these cointries between 1976 and 2009, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates being the top country destinations.

In addition to contract labor migration, there are other types of movements that are part of the larger landscape of international migration in Bangladesh. Driven by cross-border trade and other economic opportunities, there are irregular migration streams to neighboring India. This migration is also informed by the shared histories of Bangladesh and India, and the presence of long-standing communities that straddle the borders of the two countries[6].

For decades, India has received a constant inflow of unauthorized migrants from Bangladesh. According to a survey conducted by the Indian Statistical Institute in 2002-2003, most have economic reasons for migrating, such as poverty and the lack of employment opportunities, in addition to political instability. These migrants generally find work as cheap labor in the informal sector, often as domestic helpers, construction laborers, rickshaw pullers, and rag pickers. The Bangladeshi government does not officially recognize those migrants and thus does not provide help or support.

As with most illegal migration, data on its extent is scarce. The Home Ministry of Government of India estimated the number of unauthorized Bangladeshis as of December 2001 at 12 million, residing in 17 Indian States. However, in February 2009, the Home Ministry withdrew these data as "unreliable" and based on "mere hearsay." Political scientist Kamal Sadiq has estimated the number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh at 15 to 20 million, basing the number partly on documented growth of Muslim communities and partly on unpublished government reports.

No country in the world can afford illegal migrants. How India should be responding to the challenge of managing this 4,100-km border between the two countries, made even more difficult by its zig-zag contours.Regarding illegal immigrants, it is very difficult for India to do well in such a big country where there are many places to hide and many hands to help illegal immigrants. One of the suggestions has been for stricter and ruthless management of the border. But this will not solve the problem, writes George Varghese[7]. Illegal migrations still take place across the land borders of the US, possibly among the best managed in the world. When it comes to ruthlessness shown to intruders, the India-Bangladesh border is the world’s bloodiest – in the decade up to 2011, nearly 1,000 people were killed while attempting to cross it, in shootings by the Border Security Force, according to an estimate by Human Rights Watch. A 2.5-metre-high fencing is being constructed along this border. Still, people do attempt – and manage – to cross over, as they try to flee desperate poverty in Bangladesh. So while focusing on better management of the border, India will have to search for holistic solutions too. There is a golden window currently open with Bangladesh – to improve economic and transportation ties which can dramatically catalyze the development of India’s east and North-east and that of Bangladesh. In addition, India’s illegal-immigration problem could be alleviated with identification technology that has to be expedited.

If problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh is not resolved immediately, then a Hindu-Muslim conflict will take shape and it will be seed for civil unrest. Recent demonstrations in Mumbai and exodus of people of NE from Bangalore support this argument.   Let the Government of India takes initiative to immediately address this problem. In short, the growing illegal migration is a threat not only to the India’s entire north-eastern region but to the entire country.  It has to be taken seriously by all parties concerned

[1] The Migration Policy Institute, Washington DC offers some useful  data, and essential facts on the movement of people worldwide

[2] See article by Rakhi Chakrabarty, Migrants issue skirted in Bangladesh talks, Times of India, Aug 26, 2012.

[3] Devendra Kothari, “Implications of Emerging Demographic Scenario: Based on the Provisional Results of Census of India 2011”,  A Brief,  a publication of Management Institute of Population and Development – A Unit of Parivar Seva Sanstha, New Delhi, 2011.  
[4] The natural increase rate was estimated by using Sample Registration System (SRS) data. The SRS is a con­tinuous dual record demographic sample survey that has been operating for about 40 years and yields relatively reliable demographic estimates. Moreover, it is the only data collection system in India that regularly produces estimates of both birth and death rates. It was initiated by the office of Registrar General, India in a pilot basis in a few selected States in 1964-65, and it became operational during 1969-70 covering about 3700 sample units. Subsequently, the sample size was further increased. At present SRS covers 7,597 sample units (4433 rural and 3,164 urban) spared across all States and Union Territories and covers bout 1.5 million households and 7.10 million population in all States/UTs.   

[5] For details, see article by Nazli Kibria, “Working Hard for the Money: Bangladesh Faces Challenges of Large-Scale Labor Migration”, Migration Policy Institute, Washington, DC 2011

[6] The boundary between Bangladesh and India was drawn by British from Delhi or London. They never consulted local people. Family, land and even home was divided due to this impractical boundary.

[7] See article by George Varghese, “It’s a borderline case”, Hindustan Times, August, 17, 2012.