What no one wants to talk about while talking about Indo-Bangla relations
I usually look at two different databases for most of my Bangladesh-related analysis. CEIC Asia provides data produced by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Bangladesh Bank, and various government departments. The World Bank World Development Indicator database has internationally comparable data across a range of sectors. Most of the time, the two databases are broadly in line with each other. There is, however, one major difference. The CEIC /BBS database says the in 2010-11, Bangladesh’s population was 147.9 million, which is considerably smaller than the WB figure of 162.2 million for 2009.
The WB, in turn, base their figure on the work of the UN and the World Health Organisation. So, a Bangladesh government agancy says X but international experts say Y, and you’d think the government agency is cooking the books, right? But as Farida Akhter explains, with population data it ain’t necessarily so — just because WB/WHO/UN says we have more than 160 million doesn’t necessarily mean the BBS is wrong about the population being less than 150 million.
Confused? I was too. Then I thought about how these numbers are constructed. The BBS number comes from a census — a literal head count. The international agencies estimate their number based on surveys of birth, death and migration. All else equal, census beats surveys — this is Statistics 101. But over 10 million (or over 6%) discrepancy — can the UN/WHO surveys be that bad?
Is there a way we can reconcile both numbers? Suppose the BBS head count is roughly correct — that in 2011 there were somewhat less than 150 million people in Bangladesh. Does it necessarily mean that the UN estimate of over 160 million is wrong? That 160 million is the number we should have had if the surveys of birth, death and migration are ‘ballpark okay’. Now, the surveys of birth and death should be reasonably good proxy of the whole population. As should be documented migration. But what about undocumented migration?
What if the actual number of Bangladeshis turned out to be 10+ million below the UN guesstimate because the UN underestimated emigration from Bangladesh? Could there be over 10 million undocumented Bangladeshis in other countries?
How many undocumented Bangladeshis are there in India?
Ah, that’s the subject no one wants to talk about when they talk about India-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh’s official position is that there is no undocumented Bangladeshi in India. What about India? Is there any systematic analysis of how many Bangladeshis are in India without proper paperwork?
I am not aware of any. I have seen wild polemics and sloppy arguments. But no hard numbers. Of course I would be grateful if some numbers are provided. But until then, let me posit that there may well be around 10 million undocemented Bangladeshis in India. And then let me discuss some talking points I often heard in Indian fora.
Firstly, these 10 million are not political refugees. They are not in India fleeing political violence — as in 1971. The difference between these millions and myself — and many of my readers — is one of degree, not kind. We are all migrants, away from ‘home’ for primarily economic reasons.
This means that they are not likely to be a humanitarian burden on India. These people would not be in India if they didn’t have jobs there. Yes, there may be whole bunch of social issues with Bangladeshis (or Muslim Bangladeshis) displacing other communities in a given locale. But in a macro sense, we are not talking about a humanitarian crisis here. Indian taxpayers don’t have to feed 10 million extra mouth. These undocumented Bangladeshis contribute to the Indian economy, and they earn their living the hard way.
That’s something no one wants to talk about in India.
Of course, any serious economic analysis would have to take into account not just the work done by these migrants, but also possible displacement of Indian workers. To use the jargon, we need ‘general equilibrium’ analysis.
What would such an analysis cover?
Udayan Chattopadhyay wrote here: Much of the domestic labour in Calcutta is now Bangladeshi, and consists primarily of women and children.
How can we analyse that from an economic perspective? Clearly the workers themselves are better off working than not working. Presumably had they not been there, some Indian women and children would have done the same work for a higher wage. But that would also mean that the affluent family that is receiving the service would have to pay a higher wage. And that would mean they would have less money to spend on, say, street-side food.
What’s the net effect of all these? Perhaps the Indian housemaid displaced by the undocumented Bangladeshi is doing better by selling jhal-muri in Maidan. How do we know that’s not the case?
And we can extend similar argument across the Indian economy. Now, I am not claiming that the undocumented Bangladeshi immigration is a net benefit for the Indian economy. And even if that were so, I think it would be a stretch to argue that all Indians are better off because of the immigration. And even if that were so, there is more to life than pure economic benefits.
Rather, my point is, I am not aware of any analysis of the economic (and other) impacts of undocumented Bangladeshi migration into India. This is curious because India has top notch economists, and there is a huge literature of labour economics that has addressed similar issues in the west.
So, why the silence?
At this point, let me raise a puzzle about Indian development experience that may have a bearing on the labour market impacts of Bangladeshi migration into India.
Economic history suggests that there is a positive relationship between per capita income and urbanisation — as an economy develops, it urbanises, initially at a rapid pace, and then more gradually. In the chart below, China’s experience over the past three decades (red dots) show this clearly.
Pakistan (green square) and Bangladesh (red dot) have similar pattern. But India (green triangle) has a very different trajectory. It is far less urban than one might have thought given its level of economic development. Even though India is twice as rich as Bangladesh on a per capita basis, it’s barely more urban.
What that means is that Indian cities probably do not have as many potential house maids (or rickshawpullers or construction workers) to be displaced by the undocumented Bangladeshis as one might otherwise fear.
Put differently, why is it that Bangladeshis, and not some Indian community, have cornered the unskilled workers in the road construction sector in Hyderabad or rickshaw sector of Delhi?
Why isn’t India more urban? Why don’t more poor Indian villagers move to the city? These are fascinating research questions with tremendous policy implications.
And yes, no one really wants to talk about them. I guess it’s much easier to demonise undocumented Bangladeshis, and praise BSF for ‘doing a job well’.