Assam NRC row: Immigrants contribute to economy, not challenge it; govt should look beyond population numbers

Bangladeshi immigrants, or the Bengali speaking community, became a political issue in Assam because of identity and religion, but not so in West Bengal, because of linguistic and cultural similarities

S Mohammed Irshad August 04, 2018 15:10:59 IST
Assam NRC row: Immigrants contribute to economy, not challenge it; govt should look beyond population numbers

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft release in Assam has rendered 40 lakh people homeless. Citizenship for Bangladeshi immigrants becomes a critical political issue in the context of emerging religious nationalism. Bangla speaking immigrants are treated as a threat to national security, and all methods of conflict governance have failed to address this issue.

Every Bangla speaking individual has to prove his/her identity every day to survive. It's a historical truth that the formation of East Pakistan in 1947 forced many to Bangladeshis or Bangla speaking people to migrate to India. The formation of Bangladesh in 1971, in fact, prevented such massive migration.

Immigration to Assam has a history of its own, a paper by Sanjay Bhardwaj ('Illegal Bangladeshi Migration: Evaluating India-Bangladesh Approaches', published in CLAWS Journal, Winter 2014) shows; between 1911 to 1931, more than a million Bengalis migrated to India and settled down in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam. According to Bhardwaj, it continued later.

It had been a political issue in Assam, but does not become so in West Bengal. Linguistic and cultural similarities between Bangladesh and West Bengal, and a sizeable percentage of Muslims in the latter, meant there isn't the same sense of insecurity in Bengal as in Assam.

Assam NRC row Immigrants contribute to economy not challenge it govt should look beyond population numbers

Representational image. Courtesy: Nrcassam.nic.in

But the Bangladeshi immigrants, or the Bengali speaking community, become a political issue in Assam because of identity and religion. Settling down in Assam had never been an easy task for the immigrants. The Assam Accord in 1985 was an example of the local resistance against Bangladeshi immigrants. As per the Accord, those who came to Assam prior to 1 January 1966, including those whose names appeared on electoral rolls used for the 1967 elections, shall be regularised.

It was a huge political success for the state of Assam, and the major beneficiary was the local political movement and parties like the Asom Gana Parishad. They came to power on this massive ground support.

Local economy and culture

Every instance of immigration and influx of refugees creates pressure on the local economy and culture. Understanding those changes and accepting them is a political economy process. The 'sons of the soil' approach has proved insignificant in the country, except for some short-term political gains. Like the Maratha consciousness in Mumbai and the formation of Shiv Sena, although even the Sena found it difficult to stick to the 'sons of the soil' ideology. The economy of Mumbai is a major factor behind this, since the capital owning classes are from across the country, and they are the sources of funding to political parties, and control the local economy and resources as well.

However, this is not the case in Assam, where the immigrants have not become an economic class nor have they owned major resources. History also says that Muslims were brought to Assam as plantation workers by the British.

Muslims in Assam have not moved much from their peasant status, and no political party in the state speaks in favour of them. Their contribution to the state's economy is spread across the informal sector and the huge labour contribution.Assam NRC row Immigrants contribute to economy not challenge it govt should look beyond population numbers

The graph above indicates that Muslims' contribution to the GDP of Assam is comparatively lesser, and this is the reason why the government and a section of the public considers them as not contributing adequately to the economy. However, a proper assessment of the reasons and facts behind the citizenship issue is more important.

There are multiple reasons associated with it, one is the uneven distribution of opportunities. Muslims are predominantly rural, and the graph below gives a detailed account of the division in terms of participation in the main work.Assam NRC row Immigrants contribute to economy not challenge it govt should look beyond population numbers

Work force participation of Muslims

Immigrants across the world are being blamed for hurting the local community and snatching their opportunities. In Assam too, the Muslims are blamed for denying local Assamese people their employment opportunities. Interestingly though, as explained by the graph below, Muslims are active in both the main and marginal working sectors. For instance, the percentage share of work participation of Muslims in the urban sector is much higher than the total population.

Assam NRC row Immigrants contribute to economy not challenge it govt should look beyond population numbers

This figure questions the established reason for enumerating the citizenship of 40 lakh people who have lived in the state for generations. The government should recognise their participation in the informal economy of Assam and their increasing participation in the job market which definitely contributing to the state's economy. It is not snatching away opportunities, but could instead be considered as a struggle for the existence of a vulnerable community. They have to contribute to survive.

The figures 1 and 3 have to be assessed in this critical context. They reveal that Muslims are increasingly concentrated in the wage labour sector, which contributes to the local economy in terms of labour contribution, and not necessarily in the high value economy. Though there are fewer Muslims in urban areas, their participation in the main and marginal works in urban areas are much higher than the general community's.

The government should consider the linkages effect of their contribution to the urban economy, including indirect tax contribution.

As per the NSSO Survey of 2004, the informal sector occupies 88.9 percent of Assam's total labour force. Also, as per the 'Report on Employment in Informal Sector and Conditions of Informal Employment (2013-14)', only 19 percent of the country's informal sector workers receive social security benefits, but in Assam, there are 341 workers for every 1,000 who get social security benefits. The majority of the informal sector workers remain outside the social security net, and it's the immigrants who are suffering the most.

Data shows that immigrants are the active working population with vulnerable conditions, so the government should enumerate their contribution rather than look just at the population numbers.

The government should develop a proper assessment mechanism to measure their economic contribution to the state of Assam, and they are also not remitting any money outside. They are generating and spending money within Assam, so the government should think of a proper plan to capitalise their labour contribution in a more productive manner.

The author is assistant professor, Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences

Updated Date:

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