What no one wants to talk about while talking about Indo-Bangla relations

Posted in development, economics, foreign policy, India, labour by jrahman on March 29, 2012

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’.

13 Responses

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  1. Diganta said, on March 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    BBS Suvey came up with numbers that shows 0% population growth in the entire Barisal division. I find it too difficult to digest …

    • jrahman said, on March 31, 2012 at 7:55 am

      Why? Dhaka city’s population have doubled in the past couple of decade, mainly driven by in-migration. All these people have to come from somewhere. With political violence, natural disasters, and the effects of climate change, Barisal seems a plausible place where the young and mobile will leave. Not claiming that’s what happened, but that it’s entirely plausible that it could have happened.

      • Diganta said, on April 19, 2012 at 3:33 am

        Well, they have updated the count now and my problem has been resolved.

  2. উদয়ন said, on April 2, 2012 at 6:10 am

    Interesting as always.

    10 million (though I would argue it’s probably double that) – is a tiny number in India – less than 1% of the total population. Hardly something to lose sleep over. I agree there are a lot of very interesting questions raised by all this – the ones I’ve thought about a lot include mbility, eg why there are districts in Orissa where people are still dying of hunger when Bangladeshi migrants seem to have captured the construction industry in Andhra Pradesh, with Orissa geographically in the middle between Hyderabad and Dhaka, or why West Bengal has one of the highest unemployment rates but among the lowest internal and external migration rates. However, I think you are making too much of the “silence” from Indian economists (if I read you correctly). Particularly if relating it to “demonis[ing] undocumented Bangladeshis, and prais[ing] BSF”. As with most things from India on Bangladesh, don’t confuse our ignorant and benign apathy with something more sinister🙂 Indian academia is quite an open and fluid environment, hardly afraid to challenge the party line even to the point of being ridiculous – Sarmila comes from that world, after all, and I hardly think there is a conspiracy of silence on this issue.

    I really doubt that they – like much of the Indian middle class – have any clue of the BSF issue on the eastern border, beyond the vague notion that cattle smugglers and petty criminals – some of whom are Bangladeshi and some local – often die when refusing to co-operate with law enforcers – ie, a different demographic and situational construct from the maids, laborers, construction workers, rickshaw pullers etc that the same middle class Indian thinks of as to do with Bangladesh when coming into contact with them every day.

  3. উদয়ন said, on April 2, 2012 at 6:38 am

    What about what no-one wants to talk about from Bangladesh on these population numbers? Since you frame this in the context of India Bangladesh relations, let me add a couple of points and questions in the same vein.

    That millions of Bangladeshis are undocumented on our side of the border is hardly a secret in India and this has been the case for decades, but it’s only recently that Bangladeshis are even acknowledging this in popular discourse, and official acknowledgement is yet to come. Why is this?

    Depending on one’s politics, do middle class armchair warriors in Bangladesh worry that the voluntary presence in evil-big-brother-hell-on-earth India of this socio economic class (that they otherwise have nothing to do with) undoes their still-to-be-reconciled nationalism narratives (whether religious / communal or ethno-linguistic?) Is it just too much of a humiliation and embarrassment to accept that India of all places – on this metric at least – provides a convenient release valve which contributes to an equilibrium that makes things easier at the macro level?

    Are there Indian communalists and scare-mongerers raising rhetoric levels on the issue of Bangladeshi migration? Absolutely (though I would argue this has subsided a lot in recent years). But is this outweighed by those in India who don’t care, or those who tolerate and even encourage it? Let the numbers speak for themselves in terms of how many people remain and continue to cross over, versus those who have been forced back or dissuaded by whatever may be going on at the border from crossing in the first place? (And let me reiterate as I always do when discussing this issue, my condemnation of BSF behavior at the border).

    As for economic studies, perhaps the imputed earnings of this demographic could be taken into consideration when looking at the extent of the trade imbalance. These guys aren’t sending remittance back through Western Union, but given the hundi and hawala networks criss-crossing the border, and given that the migration is one-way, presumably there is some direct measuarble benefit to Bangladesh. And also, a study of what the presence of this demographic – presumably not very economically productive if in Bangladesh – would have cost the state in supporting, feeding, etc. Not to mention the normative social effect of a higher unemployment rate etc.

    As with India’s role in 1971, I don’t argue for one minute that Bangladeshis should be eternally grateful given all this, or see themselves as anything but equals when sitting at the negotiating table on any issue with Indians, but in the context of relations, if this aspect of the role that India plays in the equation (whether actively or passively) were to be acknowledged across the spectrum of political conversation, I wonder if things could be a little better between us at both the personal and national level.

  4. jrahman said, on April 2, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Udayan, the silence in Bangladesh is just as defeaning. As it happens, that’s something I can do about (abeit at a very modest scale) — working on an article, stay tuned.

    As for the Indian academia and opinion leaders (see the Kaplan quote in the defence policy thread), yes I believe it’s (not-so-benign) apathy, and not anything deliberately sinister.

    On the very last line — surely any personal relationship that can be improved by national score-keeping isn’t really all that strong, but at an impersonal (academic / policy / national) level yes, I agree that the acknowledgement of the presence of large number of undocumented Bangladeshis in India would improve the relationship.

    • উদয়ন said, on April 2, 2012 at 10:01 am

      You’re right of course – “personal” was the wrong choice of word. I was talking more of non-governmental, non-military etc. but not meaning individuals.

      • jrahman said, on April 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm

        Well, I personally think that the desired state of affairs between the two countries at an official, state-to-state level should be one of cold peace, while at a non-official (academic/activist/NGO level) there should be more engagement and interaction.

  5. Diganta said, on April 21, 2012 at 1:47 am

    I wanted to raise a second point on this which I said before also. The immigrants, who are mostly of lower income level, doesn’t contribute to the country but the educated and productive ones do. That is the basis of immigration system adopted by all developed countries. This is because the former takes more from the society (you can think it in terms of a common pool of resource – such as roads, electricity and other healthcare benefits) than they return in form of taxes and others. Now, the maid servant coming to Kolkata definitely not assisting Indian economy – because she’s getting more from the common pool than she’s contributing there. The South Kolkata businessmen (a lot of them have a shop in Bangladesh also), do pay taxes and immigrants such as those are good for country. Now, the question is, who’s coming to India? I see more of former type than the latter – that’s why India is in a loser in the equation.

    If India keeps a formal immigration policy in place and provide regular work permit to Bangladeshis, then these illegal and low-end migration will get lower. However, short-sighted leadership in India won’t understand this.

    • jrahman said, on April 22, 2012 at 11:53 am

      “The immigrants, who are mostly of lower income level, doesn’t contribute to the country but the educated and productive ones do.”

      This is a very common fallacy. And it is not at all the basis of immigration system adopted by developed countries. Developed countries’ immigration policy reflects their sociopolitical desires to keep “foreigners” out. There is very little economic reason for restrictive immigration regimes.

      Low skilled migrants, particularly in the US, and definitely in India, do not rely much on public goods like welfare/road etc. So the point in relation to the taxes they pay is a simple wash. Much more importantly, low skilled migrants keep the cost of living low for the affluent natives.

      Think of the maid servant. What common pool is she drawing from? She probably rents in a slum, which is privately managed. She probably pays for the health or education of her kids, or rely on NGOs. Even if she relies on state run institutions, arguably those institutions don’t receive much public funding in the first instance. On the hand, if not for her presence, her employers would face higher living costs — either in terms of a native maid, or in time and energy. At the extreme, the lady of the house might have to stay home.

      As I said in the post, there is an issue about the low skilled migrants displacing low skilled natives. That’s a legitimate issue. And it requires general equilibrium analysis. When such analysis is done in the US or west, the general finding is that immigration — high and low skilled — is better for the economy.

      • Diganta said, on April 24, 2012 at 4:58 am

        I am not sure I agree with immigration of low-skilled migrants strengthening a country’s economy. Consider a maid servant in Kolkata. What she gets free of tax are –
        1. Near 0 cost train-transport (15 rs a month), which is Rs 400 otherwise
        2. Rice at 11.85 Rs/kg, which is Rs 25-30 otherwise
        3. Free healthcare at all Govt hospitals
        4. Free education at all Govt schools, free education post higher secondary in case they get a BPL (below poverty line) Card.

        All these subsidies come from public tax money and poor people get benefits of these. If the actual costs are extracted out of people, labor won’t remain cheap in India. This is the reason countries don’t actually want to add pressure on the lower strata of population.

        After staying in India (where I had a servant) and USA (where I can not afford a servant), I feel the job of “servant” is not required, i.e. redundant. Only because people can not get enough education and become productive otherwise, they take recourse to these jobs. Machines can do most of these works perfectly.

  6. Diganta said, on April 24, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Economic effects of immigration –
    I referred to this …

  7. সাতকাহন « Mukti said, on July 31, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    […] As suspected, they are leaving […]

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