A few years ago, on a visit to Los Angeles in the US, we were asking for directions. A White young man got friendly and we started talking. He wanted to know which country we were from, but seemed perplexed by ‘India’. “Where is India?” he asked. And then, to our utter shock, “Is it somewhere near Bangladesh?”
Over the next few days, as we shopped in America’s huge stores with hugely competitive prices, we discovered that most inexpensive clothes on their racks had a tag: ‘Made in Bangladesh.’ Perhaps that explained the young man’s familiarity with the place.
That incident came to mind as I read about the Assam riots and strident demands of our parochial politicians, with their supposedly well-read middle-class constituents following suit, to have Bangladeshi border-crossers sent back.
Non-resident Indians (NRIs) have joined the chorus. Now, India’s middle-class diaspora has had luminaries like Mohandas K Gandhi, so it does seem out of place to berate NRIs for their internet proclamations of the floodplains of the Yamuna in Delhi being filled with Bangladeshis. Unlike Gandhi, however, their knowledge of their country seems rather limited. When I visited the floodplains of the Yamuna in Delhi last month, I found few traces of slums inhabited by Bangladeshis. Rather, they were flooded with objects of desire of Shining India: the Commonwealth Sports Village, Metro stations, and even a huge temple fancied by our NRI brethren. Given how little they know of contemporary India, it comes as no surprise that their knowledge of our neighbours is even worse. Economic facts could perhaps convince our chatterati where moral reasoning fails. What they have failed to notice is that Bangladesh is no longer a country of poverty stricken millions plotting their way across the border for a better life in India. The ‘3G’ of the country next door is different from what we understand in India from our ‘2G’ experience. There, it refers to the three Gs that have transformed the country over the past decade and more: Garments, Grameen Bank and Gas. Together, this trio of unrelated industries—Grameen, in microcredit, is an industry unto itself—has had an impact on Bangladesh’s economy that should be the envy of India. Little surprise that both Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have placed Bangladesh on their shortlists of ‘transitional states likely to succeed’.
First, consider Bangladesh’s income per head. At about $770, it is indeed below India’s, at $1,400 in 2011, according to World Bank data (Atlas Method). But that is not an appropriate comparison. The overall size and economies of the two countries are vastly different. To assess the incentive for migration, of far greater relevance is the economic status of India’s border states—where it has been flagged as a serious political problem. But when you compare these figures, quite another story unfolds. West Bengal has a per capita income of Rs 41,616 ($750 at the current exchange rate) and Assam posts a figure of just Rs 33,633 ($600). This means that Bangladeshi citizens are richer on average than West Bengali and Assamese residents. Does that sound like an argument for mass migration to Assam?
Perhaps some migration does take place, but how large could the numbers realistically be? Of all Indian states, analysts have found that population growth over the past decade has been the lowest in Assam.
While Garments, Gas and Grameen were transforming Bangladesh, Assam’s polity remained fragmented and its economic activity low. West Bengal saw four decades of Communist rule, with its economy making little headway. Even now, East Bengal’s economic trajectory remains higher than that of Poschim Banga (whatever it’s new name, little has changed in West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee as Chief Minister).
The facts speak for themselves. Take inflows and outflows of money. While India has been running a large current account deficit (of almost 3 per cent of GDP in 2011, by World Bank data), Bangladesh has had an impressive surplus (almost 2 per cent of GDP in 2011). Simply put, the latter earns more dollars than it spends. This success is partly explained by my first brush with its arrival in the West’s hall of fame: its garments exports. In the 1980s, when the Assam agitation started, the garment industry in Bangladesh employed 120,000 workers. Over the past three decades, this has risen to 3.6 million. In the same period, its dollar exports of garments have gone up from $32 million to $17,914 million (a jump of over 550 times). The industry brings in enough hard currency to fund the country’s oil imports, the dependence on which has fallen sharply as a result of spiralling gas output. Last year, Bangladesh produced 19 billion cubic metres of gas for a population of less than 0.2 billion, while India produced 38 billion cubic meters for a population of a billion more. Garments and gas have placed Bangladesh in a strong position as far as external finances go.
While booming exports put money in the pockets of rich businessmen (other than generating millions of jobs) and taxes on gas output can fatten a rotten bureaucracy (other than keeping taxes low), the big difference in addressing poverty had been made by Grameen Bank, Bangladesh’s famous lender of small loans. In fact, this microlender is credited with making ‘inclusive growth’ more than just a slogan in that country.
With access to easy credit, over 8 million members (97 per cent of whom are women) have turned entrepreneurs; and business has boomed not only in Dhaka and Chittagong, but also across thousands of villages. Assuming a family size of 4-5, that would mean 35-40 million citizens—about a fourth of the country’s 150 million population—have a small business going. Note that Bangladesh’s unemployment rate is 4.8 per cent, less than half of India’s 9.8 per cent.
Is it a surprise that with good job prospects, low taxes and opportunities to turn entrepreneur, Bangladeshis prefer to stay home instead of trudging hundreds of kilometres across difficult terrain to cross the border?
The muddled mind of the angry NRI is reflected in yet another misguided belief that Bangladesh shares a large border with Assam. Of the 4,097 km long border that this country shares with India, Assam is a mere 263 km—6 per cent—of the length, with more than half being shared with West Bengal (no riots there), and the rest with Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram (riots, what riots?). Since areas adjoining 94 per cent of the Indo-Bangla border remain peaceful, the recent riots are a comment, surely, on the role politicians play in the troubled state of Assam.
If you thought Bangladesh’s boom and closeness would galvanise India’s government and business houses to engage it commercially, perish the thought. In spite of practically being its only neighbour (Myanmar has a mere speck of a border with it), India has been displaced by China as its largest trade partner. Most of its imports are from the country north of the Himalayas, and most exports to the land of megastores, the US.
If India features in Dhaka headlines, it is largely for rough relations with the smaller country. This tendency of picking fights with neighbours, of course, is an Indian speciality. Pakistan is easy to blame and equally difficult to defend for its behaviour. When it comes to Sri Lanka, both of India’s Dravidian parties compete in bashing and gheraoing visiting Sri Lankans, be they government officials or simple tourists. There again, China is not only advancing its economic agenda, but also heightening cooperation in strategic defence matters. And to worsen relations with Bangladesh, all it took was Mamata Banerjee to torpedo various treaties on river water sharing. What was her reason? She claimed that North Bengal would suffer. In a country where water resources management translates to four months of floods, four months of normalcy and four months of drought, year after year, not allowing a sound water policy with a friendly neighbour is akin to cutting one’s nose to spite the face. Perhaps her motivation lay in the politics of North Bengal, where her Trinamool Congress party vies for votes with the Congress. But the casualty is the opportunity lost in working closely with a liberal regime in Dhaka that has cooperated with New Delhi in busting terror cells operating against India.
Finally, the moral question. The same right wing that is upset with Bangladeshi ‘infiltration’ appears quite cool with Nepali migration. Regardless of the record of Nepalis in abiding by the law, or the links of their Maoists with India’s own, Indian politicians are happy to offer an open border to the Hindu-majority neighbour to the north. But such openness evokes shock and horror when it comes to Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Is it because Nepalis are seen as co-religionists?
India’s, after all, is a political culture where a man who contests the vice-presidential election openly laments the passing of the ‘Hindu Kingdom of Nepal’ as it turns into a republic. Coming from a former Minister for External Affairs, these comments, apart from displaying contempt for his own country’s constitution, only highlight what’s obvious to observers: that such lapses of reasoning are a hallmark of India’s relations with its neighbours.
The double standards of our NRI friends are even more brazen. For those who migrated to richer climes to now abuse and oppose migration by others is either naïve or shameless. Given that most are educated, the latter seems more likely. The motif seems to read: ‘My migration is pursuit of happiness; your migration is a criminal assault.’
It is time that India’s political elite, middle-class and NRI fraternity smelt the coffee (or should one say, the Hilsa?). By Census data, population growth in the border districts of Assam has been lower than in the rest of the state and country. Border crossings from Bangladesh are a supposition being hurled around without any evidence. This is not to deny that immigration did happen when that country was a colony of Pakistan, with East Bengalis brutalised by the army during its struggle for independence. But all that was before 16 December 1971.
Immigration from Bangladesh was reduced to a trickle, first by Assam’s instability of the 80s, and then by the three Gs that transformed it over the 90s and 2000s right under India’s snoring nose. It’s a classic case of the elephant busy trumpeting its glory while the ant goes about gathering grain.
The truth is, much has changed in the Subcontinent’s migration patterns. Notice how the Thackerays of Mumbai vent populist anger against migrants from north India these days? People in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have no garment factories, no gas and little by way of grameen microfinance. If only they knew, maybe they would want to migrate to Bangladesh…?