The changing climate of Bangladeshi migration to India

Authors: Manish Vaid, ORF, and Tridivesh Singh Maini, New Delhi

Bangladesh’s vulnerability to climate change is the main reason behind its number six ranking on the 2011 UN World Risk Index — the highest within South Asia.


UN projections indicate that a sea level rise of 0.5 metres could see Bangladesh lose approximately 11 per cent of its land by 2050, which would affect around 15 million people. Climate migration to urban areas, such as Dhaka, has already begun as Bangladeshis flee desertification in the north, and floods and soil degradation caused by rising sea levels in the south.

Yet Bangladesh cannot accommodate internal migration on such a large scale, and India will be the natural choice for many climate migrants because it has already absorbed millions of Bangladeshi migrants — both legal and illegal — since Bangladesh first came into being in 1971. The 2001 Indian census indicates that of the five million documented migrants living in India at the time, around three million were Bangladeshi. Given the age of this data, it is unlikely to reflect any large-scale climate migration, but the final 2011 census results will undoubtedly reflect a climate-induced increase in Bangladeshi migration to India.

At present, migration from Bangladesh is the combined result of social, economic, political and environmental factors. Migration patterns will soon become unmanageable if existing practices for handling these migrants continue. Over the past few years, the Indian government has treated migration solely as a security problem, without having seriously considered other dimensions, such as climate change. A recent example is the visit of India’s external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, to Bangladesh in February 2013, when he sought Dhaka’s cooperation in curbing both illegal migration and smuggling across the border. Yet the issue of climate-induced migration — even if discussed — was not mentioned as a priority item in the resulting media coverage.

The reasons behind this security-oriented approach are simple enough — the compulsions of domestic politics mean that it is political suicide for policymakers to look at migration from a rational perspective, as was evident from last year’s ethnic clashes in Kokrajhar, Assam where India’s political class was quick to blame immigrants from Bangladesh for the clashes. It has been argued that in this particular conflict, illegal immigration was emphasised by sections of the media and the political class with the sole intent of politicising the issue.

Migration taps into deep anxieties, including demographic change and increased competition over limited natural resource like water and land. India has already started to experience the impacts of climate-induced migration from Bangladesh. The likely outcome will be to split the economies of Indian and Bangladeshi border states, with flow-on effects for places at a higher elevation, given the unpreparedness of both these countries.

It is therefore immensely important for both countries to work together to handle migration and to manage their 4,097 kilometre-long border. India also needs to be proactive in initiating the Joint Climate Change Mitigation Forum, which could help Bangladesh and its citizens with mitigation and adaptation measures. This is crucial for India, because dealing with such a massive influx of people into its own territory will be an enormous challenge.

To prevent illegal migration, the Indian government has already sanctioned the construction of border roads andfencingin two phases. As of 31 January 2010, 2,712 kilometres out of 3,436 kilometres of fencing had already been completed. Fencing along another 101-kilometre stretch was expected to be completed by March 2012, but has since spilled over.

Instead of treating migration simply as a threat, and viewing it from a narrow security perspective, India should explore the possibility of collaborating with Bangladesh to address future climate-induced migration. Collaboration could take the form of a joint mechanism to deal with different kinds of migration, with a special focus on establishing combined disaster management groups to deal with climate change problems at their source. This could be accomplished by implementing innovative adaptation mechanisms in Bangladesh itself.

Apart from this, while it may sound utopian to some, it is imperative that India seeks to address the issue of migration from Bangladesh, by joining hands with the latter and ensuring economic development of the latter and not through knee jerk reactions like sealing the borders, as has been suggested by some.

Manish Vaid is a Research Assistant at The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist and independent foreign policy analyst.