The issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh will not go away. In the North-East, that’s primarily an Assam problem and porous borders make enforcement difficult. We don’t yet have religious data from Census 2011. When they surface, there will no doubt again be a controversy. The only tangible figure, if that’s the expression to use, is from an un-starred question, answered by the then MOS in Home (Sri Prakash Jaiswal) in Rajya Sabha on 14th July 2004. Using the 2001 Census benchmark and with the caveat that these are only guesses, not firm estimates, we had a figure of 12.05 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in December 2001, 5.7 million in West Bengal and 5 million in Assam. The remainder were in different places, including almost 500,000 in Bihar and almost 400,000 in Delhi. Using 2011 Census figures, there has already been some kind of debate about rates of population growth in Assam. For instance, Assam had a population of 31.2 million in 2011 and 26.7 million in 2001. That’s a decadal rate of growth of 1.7%, compared to 1.9% for the preceding decade. There cannot be any neat correlation between rate of population growth and immigration, especially when data don’t exist.
Migration of any variety occurs both because of push and pull factors. Bangladesh’s economic growth has been impressive. Consequently, for the country as a whole, it’s plausible to argue that out-migration must have declined. That doesn’t mean it has been eliminated, especially since India can also be an entry point for Bangladeshis to migrate to elsewhere in the world. If data on Bangladeshi migrant entry into India has problems, it’s even worse for Bangladeshi migrant exit from India. The simple point is that there is a difference between a stock and a flow. If a cut-off of 1971 is used (as it is for Assam), in all probability, however large the stock may be, in the 1990s and thereafter, the increment has probably been lower than in 1970s and 1980s. But when population sizes are small, as it is in some North-Eastern States, even small flows can lead to socio-economic turmoil. While religious data aren’t yet available for 2011 Census, witness the debate on the basis of the 2001 Census numbers. First, there are arguments about religious composition of the population changing. At that aggregate level, that’s a dangerous and misleading argument. While the religious composition is indeed changing, and 2011 Census data will no doubt reinforce that trend, it’s by no means obvious whether that shift is because of in-migration or because of natural rates of growth in the existing population.
Second, we have refinements that are more plausible. These may involve extrapolating past (say pre-1971) rates of population growth with existing population numbers. Or they may involve comparing rates of population growth in border districts of Assam (say Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Morigaon, Nagaon, Cachar, Karimganj) with rates of population growth in non-border districts. One can do the same kind of exercise with increases in voting population in border districts and compare it with non-border districts. But in the last resort, these remain intellectual exercises. They may substantiate the empirical case for illegal migration. But they don’t help to identify illegal migrants. There is an important point about permitting legal migration through work permits. Since such migration is often seasonal, legal migration through temporary work permits also allows return. If migration is illegal, return also becomes difficult and migration amounts to settlement. But to return to the point, illegal migration cannot occur unless it is politically encouraged. Nor, if there is decentralization, is it impossible to identify illegal migrants, such as through the tribunals mandated under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act of 1983. However, there is a clause in the IMDT Act that places the burden of proof on the complainant, unlike the Foreigners Act of 1946, which places the burden of proof on the person alleged to be a foreigner.
In October 2012, the Assam government produced a White Paper on foreigners. Among other things, this tells us that between 1961 and 1966, 178,952 illegal immigrants left voluntarily, or were deported. Between 1985 and 2012, only 2,442 were deported. These numbers don’t ring true. Could illegal migration have dropped that dramatically? Or did reversal of burden of proof cause problems? In addition, the White Paper also tells us various tribunals identified 61,774 people as illegal migrants between 1985 and 2012. Of these, 32,537 were of 1966-71 stock. So what happened to the others? Whichever way one looks at it, one can’t avoid the feeling that successive governments in Assam (and this isn’t a new phenomenon) have encouraged illegal migration and have done nothing to discourage it. No wonder we have a problem.