By Unmukta Sinha
Why we cannot disregard or oversimplify the Bangladeshi migrant issue into one of merely international border violation
In my previous post, we saw that migration from Bangladesh into India has been a continuous practice with the adjective “internal” before Partition in (1947) and “international” post Partition. For varied reasons, ranging from politically induced ones, to ecological issues such as the Farakka case, to loss of land and livelihood for the poor subsistence farmers; from religious persecution to the recent environmental degradation and climate change; and at times for quotidian reasons such as people visiting their relatives across the border, tending to their farmlands to simply getting tools from their warehouse situated in the borderlands, Bangladeshis have been consistently migrating into India.
Existing estimates suggest that Bangladeshi migration to India occurs mainly from eastern side of India particularly into three bordering states—West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. The author of the referred link further suggests that these states serve as major “conduits of the flow”, meaning migrants who come into West Bengal, Assam and Tripura through the porous border migrate further into Bihar, Delhi and Rajasthan and even to Maharashtra. Thus, apart from being the recipients of Bangladeshi migrants West Bengal, Assam and Tripura also serve as transit destinations. The trigger being highly economic in nature, poor Bangladeshi migrants are driven in search of better avenues for jobs and livelihood. This extends the length of the vector of migration and reinforces the fact that India’s border security measures have to be tightened, however in a humane manner. The other major trigger for Bangladeshi migrants is environmental. Bangladesh being a low lying nation, prone to ravaging floods and cyclones that lead to land loss and induce a general insecurity from a lack of sustainable livelihood.
Those who migrate for economic reasons could be termed as ‘ecomigrants’ and those for environmental issues as ‘environmental migrants’. While the geographic impact of ecomigrants stems from merely crossing over international borders, environmental problems rarely follow political lines. What is being crossed by environmental migrants is the “environmental border” where land degradation stops or disaster doesn’t reach. This kind of logic may be extended unto all out-migrants. Political refugees must cross political borders, usually of a nation. Those fleeing ethnic violence must cross ethnic borders, which may not follow political boundaries. Migrants leaving due to economic decline must cross the economic bounds of the decline, which again may not follow the political border. Thus in the environmental context, Bangladeshi migrants suffering from the discomfort of climate change are forced to migrate to a more secure zone even if it requires entering into neighbouring states, particularly India, by simply crossing the “environmental borders” regardless of whether these borders coincide with international political borders or not. For these migrants it is hard to peg the responsibilities of migration on any one geopolitical, economic or social entity.
For instance, floods do not occur only because of heavy rain in Bangladesh, but rather because such precipitation outstrips water management systems in the upriver areas—heavy monsoonal rains in China, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam swell the Brahmaputra’s banks in Bangladesh causing untold damage. Likewise, salinity intrusion in southern Bangladesh follows not only from climactic reasons of sea-level rise or severe cyclones, but also from economic reasons of large-scale shrimp farming which requires acres of saline water ponds.
Further the impact of the illegal Bangladeshi migrant on the economy of the receiving state is significant, for he is willing to work long hours for a low wage, and is thus an invaluable asset. Thus it may be argued that if indeed there are about 12 to 20 million Bangladeshi migrants in India, there must millions of Indians employing them. This indicates that certain regions in India have employers who would accept illegal labour migrants which pulled the Bangladeshi migrants to choose these places over others to integrate into the black/underground economic sector—for example Assam and West Bengal as tea plantation workers or Delhi and Mumbai as domestic help.
Thus even a simple cursory look at the issue of Bangladeshi migration into India throws up a multitude of challenges, ones that the Indian nation, awake to this deluge of illegal entries, cannot disregard or oversimplify the issue into one of merely international border violation. The dynamics of this movement of people is deeply intertwined with not just the economics of the two nations and overlapping regions, but also environmental and climactic reasons. Thus India needs to introspect into what it can do to alleviate some of the triggers: diverting the excess waters of the Brahmaputra could reduce chances of flooding in downriver areas in Bangladesh, or issuing work permits to labour migrants would stop their persecution at the hands of their Indian employers and make them more accountable.
Unmukta Sinha has previously interned with the Takshashila Institution.