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Alarm bells that should have sounded decades ago began to reverberate in a meeting hall in Naypyidaw on 4 March 2014 when the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina informed her counterparts from the BIMSTEC nations that an increase in one degree Celsius in the earth’s climatic system—as a result of global warming—would submerge a fifth of Bangladesh. The consequence would force 30 million people to become “climate migrants.” Recent global assessments have been indicating an increase in the intensity and rate of occurrence of natural disasters in South Asia and the adjoining regions: migration due to climate change would be one of the newest manifestations. However, the fright that Sheikh Hasina’s proclamation brought—especially to India—was the fact that the entire flock of migrants would drift to India.

 

Situated at the base of the mighty Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system, Bangladesh is awashed by a total of 57 trans-boundary rivers that snake down to it. 54 of the rivers flow in from India and another three from Myanmar. Without any control over the water volume and course, 90 percent of the total run-off water that is generated annually drains into the Bay of Bengal. The pervasiveness of poverty, narrow adaptive capacity, weakly funded and ineffective governance fueled with an abominable population density (an estimated one thousand people live in each square kilometer: swelling Bangladesh’s population by two million every year!) has ranked the country as one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change. The displacement of population from Bangladesh would also be exacerbated as a result of two other important factors. The severity and timing of the floods in Bangladesh is one of untold sorrow. Indeed, the entire region’s story of floods in 2020 including Assam has been particularly ruthless. Even the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had written to the Chief Minister of Assam to express both his grief and solidarity with the victims of the unprecedented floods in the state which claimed almost 100 lives and affected over 40 Lakh people. But the fact of the matter is that floods—in Assam—are a perennial occurrence. Despite the fact that the bane is becoming increasingly unpredictable, there has never been a year when floods have not visited Assam. It is unfortunate that successive governments have not cerebrated on the underlying causes, and are content with the patience that they have been endowed with: waiting for the next wave to come after the one that has just devastated the population, especially the ones who are “Below the Poverty Line”, has passed. Some observers have even opined about dubious intent to such so-called “patience” and insouciance!

 

Lying right in the pathway of colossal cyclones that emanate from the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh and regions north of it have always been impacted by such disturbances. However, the increase in intensity and unpredictability (as aforesaid) of such cyclones have reinforced the region’s vulnerability to anthropogenic climate change. Secondly, Bangladesh’s coast line lies only a couple of metres above sea level. This allows the intrusion of saltwater into the countryside which pollutes groundwater supply and lays waste the farmlands. The result: permanent displacement of population, and one which began several decades ago.

 

Furthermore, Bangladesh’s economy, with a purchasing power parity that decreased to 2.67 % in 2019 after an increase to 5.96% in 2009 does not seem to have the wherewithal to respond or battle natural disasters. Indeed, its poverty rate is all set to double to 40.9% from what it was prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.  Furthermore, Islamism—more specifically its incorrect interpretations—that demonstrates itself in unplanned family management and the inability of successive dispensations to educate the populace about the ill-effects of politically motivated religious adherence has taken a toll, ferrying an otherwise fair land to the brink of catastrophe.

 

To be fair to the policy makers in Dhaka, plans such as the “National Action Plan on Adaptation” (2005) and the “Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan” (2009) were floated. It had also established the “Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund” and the “Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund.” The allocations have been robust as well, with $200 and $114 million respectively. What is more, that as a “Least Developed Country”, Bangladesh was exempt from any responsibility to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions! However, it has along with 188 other countries ratified the Paris Agreement of 2015 on 21 September 2016, consenting thereby to communicate their post-2020 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) which incidentally is not a legally binding process. It has also expressed its “close links” between the country’s “adaptation and mitigation plans” by anvilling an NDC Roadmap. The Sectoral Action Plans are primarily for the transport, power and the industry sectors. However, its commitment to reduce GHG emissions in the above sectors is conditional to receiving “sufficient and appropriate support from developed countries”. While it stands to reason that as a “lower middle income” nation, Bangladesh faces considerable development challenges, one among which is the issue of providing universal electricity supply at reasonably priced rates to its populace, the fact of the matter is that its intention to achieve its objective by shifting its power generating capacity to coal-fired power production would risk straitjacketing the country into a carbon intensive development setting. This would have a ramification in its GHG emission reduction pledge. The long term consequence—as discussed above—would be the loss of land area as a result of rising sea level.

 

Also, certain pronouncements by leading intellectuals of Bangladesh about the crisis seem to state that despite the awareness that has dawned upon them, the people of Bangladesh are clearly banking on the lebensraum in Assam and thereabouts. Sadeq Khan wrote in the Holiday, (“Lebensraum for Bangladeshis?” Holiday (Dhaka), 22 November 1991), “A natural overflow of population pressure is therefore very much on the cards and will not be restrainable by barbed wire or border patrol measures. The natural trend of population overflow from Bangladesh is towards the sparsely populated lands of the South East in the Arakan side and of the North East in the Seven Sisters side of the Indian subcontinent.” Dhaka might have an India-friendly regime at present, but Sheikh Hasina’s 4 March 2014 call from Naypyidaw for a “unified stand” (which most observers in India read as a plea for accommodating more Bangladeshi migrants) is quite in line with the statement of Sadeq Khan made almost 25 years ago.

 

Illegal migration from Bangladesh into India is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, it began in the early twentieth century when movement of population started from districts of undivided Bengal, particularly Mymensingh, Pabna, Bogra and Rangpur into Assam. In 1931, when S.C. Mullan, the British Census Superintendent wrote, “Where there is wasteland thither flock the Mymensinghias. In fact, the way in which they have seized upon the vacant areas in the Assam valley seems almost uncanny. Without fuss, without tumult, without undue trouble to the district revenue staffs, a population which must amount to over half a million has transplanted itself from Bengal into the Assam valley during the last twenty five years.” It would be noticed that Mullan appended phrases such as “wasteland” and “without undue trouble” when he wrote about the movement of the Mymensinghias into Assam. Almost a century later, the demographic shift has not only caused massive socio-political “tumult,” with violent agitations, pogroms and politically tectonic upheavals, but the disappearance of the wastelands that Mullan had referred to. Every inch of land in Assam is populated, and although the India State of Forest Report 2019 has stated that the forest cover in the state has witnessed a 0.79 per cent increase compared to the last assessment in 2017, the fact of the matter is that the state’s forest cover has reduced over the years. It is no longer a matter of speculation as to how the depletion has occurred. The invading hordes of “insecure” and “economic” migrants—as stated by S.C. Mullan, Census Superintendent of Assam, in 1931, which he compared with a “mass movement of large body of ants”—have taken over almost every inch of cultivable and habitable land. The bemoaning of loss of forest land in a once green expanse was only a matter of time, especially as even the Kaziranga National Park has not been spared (as an aside, it would be of import to note that at least one assessment of the rise in large-scale rhino-poaching in the national park is as a direct result of recruitment of “forest guards” of dubious origin, replacing the traditional keepers of the green that were from the Mising and such other communities that are indigenous to the Park’s outskirts). A newspaper report stating that more than one-fifth of the Bangladeshi nationals (not to mention the scores that enter illegally on a daily basis) who enter India with proper travel documents never return to their country (The Assam Tribune, 8 July 2014) probably provides but only a miniscule documentary evidence of the presence of Bangladeshis in India. According to the Census of India 2001, Bangladeshis form the largest group of migrants in India by way of 3,084,826, of which two million reside in Assam.

 

If one were to speak the language of travel agents, visas and such authorised ways in which travelling is engendered, the cheapest trip in the world is from Bangladesh to India. It is a mere Rs.2000! However, as is well known, only a few members of the country that would soon lose a fifth of their land area to the surging Bay come to India legally. A visit to Assam would necessitate only a straight cross-over across a “manned” border, a short stay in the already established house of a distant relative in and around Dhubri (including chars and chaporis), the procurement (in advance) of a perfectly valid document for as less as Rs. 200, and one that proves, without doubt, the holder’s Indian citizenship and thence travel and permanent residentship in Guwahati where demand for labour is in plenty. The hypocritical middle class Assamese who had, once taken to the streets to rid their state of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, hiring all class and form of such a visitor permanently, would ascertain it. Indeed, as the author wrote in his book—Terror Sans Frontiers: Islamist Militancy in North East India (Vision Books, 2004 & 2008)—“On certain days the bustling streets of Guwahati would wear a deserted look. On days of Islamic celebration and observance, and on polling days, this celebrated “citizenry” would disappear.”

 

Of late, intense migrant-native conflict such as the one that was witnessed in the Bodoland Territorial Area District will occur with greater frequency, especially with the elections to the Assam Legislative Assembly due in another six-eight months (in the time of writing in the first week of November 2020!). Religious divide is perhaps the last reason for the conflict. In the opinion of the author, land is the primary factor. The fight over resource rich land is on. It has now metamorphosed into rights over political power. New political formations are emerging to protect the illegal migrants, as have strategies. In the last Lok Sabha elections, the illegal migrants supported the non-Bodos, ensured the victory of the non-Bodo candidate and consequently received the patronage of the non-Bodos, a bonhomie that would continue until the next elections. But once the 2021 polls to the Assam Legislative Assembly are over, and the time would soon be upon the electorate in 2026, the vanguards would have come onto their own (political formations, candidates and militias), marching deeper into the North East and taking over the last inch of barren land. The forest cover of the North East is already disappearing—The Indian State of Forest Report 2019 presents a dismal picture for the region with a total decrease of around 765 Sq Km of forest cover. The emergence of new social formations such as the sema-miyas and the lo-miyas in Nagaland is a direct result of the illegal entry of people from Bangladesh. The numbers and the combat resources of the illegal migrants would soon compellingly enter Arunachal Pradesh, where land continues to be—for the time being—available. Conflict would have spread, but the militias of the migrants—who would be right off the global salafi assembly line-ups, or most likely after having completed a successful tour of duty with the Quetta Shura or the resurgent al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent—would have been activated by then, taking over the trenches that would have been vacated by the ethnic insurgents. Lebensraum, Brihot Bangladesh (Greater Bangladesh) and Nizam-e-Mustafa would have been established. If the “insecure” and “economic” migrants of the present have laid the substructure, the 30 million “climate migrants” waiting across the border for the next Cyclone Aila to strike would decisively enter the enchanted frontiers to invade it.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.