New Delhi: G. Kishan Reddy’s statement Sunday when he said that “half of Bangladesh will be empty if India starts granting citizenship”, is indicative of the short-sighted and dated perception of a country whose economy has grown in leaps and bounds.
Reddy is not alone in the belief that Bangladesh is still stuck in a time, marked by low growth, fewer jobs and a steady outflow of people.
Home Minister Amit Shah has on several occasions referred to Bangladeshi migrants as “termites” and “infiltrators”.
“The illegal immigrants are like termites. They are eating the grain that should go to the poor, they are taking our jobs. The T of TMC stands for Tushtikaran of Bangladeshi infiltrators, (appeasement), M for Mafia and C for Chitfunds,” Shah had said in April last year in an attack on Mamata Banerjee’s ruling Trinamool Congress party in West Bengal.
This assumed line of attack has persisted despite Bangladesh’s ministers calling to attention that Bangladesh is “no longer a poor country” and has a GDP growth forecast of 7.4%, which is higher than India’s 6.1%.
“This (the image of a poor Bangladesh) is a legacy of the past, when Bangladesh was struggling and the economy was not doing well. They suffered a destructive war (and other devastating situations),” a former high commissioner to Bangladesh told ThePrint.
“But over the years, particularly under Sheikh Hasina, they’ve done well on the economic front. So, in the last 20 years or so, they’ve come out of that kind of the economic mess.”
ThePrint takes a look at this history to understand the events that might have spurred this image of Bangladesh and why it has persisted in our political rhetoric.
War-stricken and famine-hit
“The history of Bangladesh’s economy starts in the 1960s, where the then East Pakistan’s economy grew by an annual average rate of around 4 per cent,” researchers Umme Humayara Manni and Munshi Naser Ibne Afzal note in their paper, Effect of Trade Liberalization on Economic Growth of Developing Countries: A Case of Bangladesh Economy.
The GDP per capita growth fluctuated heavily during these years. Then came the 1971 Liberation War, which would result in the independence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. A fifth of the country’s economy was destroyed leading to a year marked by a high rate of inflation, almost zero-level productivity and domestic savings, characteristic of a conflict-stricken economy.
On a slow road to recovery, the country was once again struck by tragedy, this time in the form of the famine of 1974. From April to July that year, parts of Bangladesh were ravaged by heavy rainfall and floods, which affected the rice fields. This, coupled with low food grain availability in the preceding year, led to the deaths of about 15,00,000 people.
According to the World Bank’s data, the GDP per capita growth fell to -5.9% while the average inflation rate touched an all-time high of 80.57%.
The out-migration rates remained high during the war of 1971 and the famine of 1974. About 1,00,00,000 migrants are said to have entered India illegally during the war of 1971, with several settling in the states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya.
The trend continued through the 1980s and into the early 2000s. A report by the Task Force on Border Management under Madhav Godbole in 2000 pegged the number of undocumented Bangladeshis at 1,50,00,000.
However, the 2011 census indicated a fall in the number of migrations from Bangladesh. Contrary to the period between 1992 and 2001 during which 280,000 migrations were reported, 172,000 cases of migration were reported during 2002 -2011.
Among the ‘least developed’ countries
In the years between 1971 and 1985, the GDP grew from $8.752 billion to $22.278 billion. Then from 1987, trade liberalisation policies started being actively pursued in Bangladesh. The reforms, which largely took place under the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, included the “opening up of trade in many restricted items, rationalization and diminution of import tariffs, and liberalization of foreign exchange regime”.
“GDP per capita has been increasing since pre-liberalization period and continuing to move at a faster rate up to now. Besides, FDI and remittances show a high growth rate in the post-liberalization period. Both exports and imports have increased noticeably since liberalization, with imports rising faster than exports in the period immediately after liberalization,” Manni and Afzal highlight in their paper.
Despite the steady growth, it took Bangladesh 43 years (from 1975) to shrug off the ‘least developed status’ as it fulfilled the eligibility criteria for the first time in 2018. At the centre of the country’s growth story was its garment industry.
In the 20 years after 1987, Bangladesh became the second-largest apparel exporter, with the industry accounting for 80 per cent of the country’s exports and “nearly a quarter of its GDP”. Conditions at the 4,560 garment factories, however, were abysmal because of the poorly-constructed factories. The poor conditions also meant that labour was dirt cheap, making it an attractive option for countries looking to outsource.
The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, in which 1,134 workers died, that’s considered the worst accident ever to have occurred in the garment industry, led to a seismic shift. The government now began forcing companies to prioritise the safety of workers, their efforts culminating in the creation of the Accord on Fire.
Regardless of these measures, the image of a Bangladesh where workers work in destitute conditions remains.
How Bangladesh infiltrated our political discourse
The idea of a poverty-stricken Bangladesh and its “infiltrating migrants” have consistently featured in local elections in India. The topic keeps rearing its head in the political discourse of the North-Eastern region and West Bengal.
“This kind of rhetoric, it happened earlier also. In West Bengal, the Muslim migrants were allowed to stay on and the local politicians helped them on the understanding that they would vote for them. So that kind of a nexus continues till date,” said a former high commissioner to Bangladesh.
The issue was a hot topic in the 2006 Bengal elections as Mamata Banerjee had resigned from her Lok Sabha seat the year before, demanding a discussion on illegal migrants being settled in the state.
“Illegal migrants from Bangladesh are also part of the voters’ list in West Bengal. The state government has done nothing about it. Therefore, the issue must be discussed,” Banerjee had said at the time.
Late CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee, who was the Lok Sabha Speaker then, had refused a discussion.
Six years later, in the 2011 elections, Banerjee once again raked up the issue in the poll campaign. That’s the year she defeated the Left and removed its 34-year-old government from West Bengal.
As West Bengal CM today, she has now taken a U-turn on the matter and openly challenged the BJP’s narrative.
What lives on is the picture of an impoverished Bangladesh and its citizens.