Dialogue  October-December, 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2

Demographic Effects of Forced Illegal Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal : A Qualitative  Study


Pranati Datta, Swati Sadhu, B.N. Bhattacharya and  P.K. Majumdar*





Research on forced illegal migration is a sensitive issue and necessitates participatory and reflexive approaches.  Forced illegal migration is a global phenomenon. Hunger, poverty, security threat recognize no border. Migration is a safety valve for local problem. The unending flow of forced illegal migration to India in general and West Bengal in particular began with partition of Bengal in 1947. It is tragic fact of history that India’s independence brought in untold miseries to millions of the countrymen who had been forced to leave their ancestral homes under compelling circumstances (Kar, 2003)..

    From 1947 to 1971 the region of Bangladesh was a province of Pakistan. As such, its official designation was changed from East Bengal to East Pakistan in 1955(Bangladesh Profile, 2005, Sept, www.infoplease.com). On March 26, 1971, leaders of East Pakistan declared the region independent as Bangladesh (Bengali for “Bengal nation”), and its independence was assured on December 16, 1971, when Pakistani troops in the region surrendered to a joint force of Bangladeshi and Indian troops. Ten million  took refuge in India

(Bangladesh Profile, 2005, Sept, www.infoplease.com). Many went back




but a sizable undocumented section stayed back and mingled with the mainstream of India’s life (Guha Roy,2003).

   West Bengal, an Indian state, place of destination of poor Bangladeshis, is bounded by Bangladesh in the eastern side with 9 border districts   e.g Kolkata,  24 Parganas (North and South), Nadia, Murshidabad, Maldah, West Dinajpur (North and South), Darjeeling, Kooch Behar and Jalpaiguri.

      Bangladesh border is the longest land border that India shares with any of its neighbours. It covers a length of 4096 kilometers (Krishnan 2001) abutting the states of West Bengal ( 2216 km), Assam(262 km), Meghalay(443 km), Mizoram(318 km) and Tripura(856 km).  In West Bengal the entire stretch of 2216 km border, except a small portion in the southern extremity, is flat without any natural obstacles and people on both sides live very close to the border(Singh, 2001). The existing and emerging threats along this border are conditioned, to a large extent, by the terrain. The border runs through jungle, hills, villages, paddy and jute fields making it easy to cross. In some cases the border (Singh, 2002) cuts through the middle of several villages, while one section of a house is in one country, another is in the other. In West Bengal for instance there are more than 100 villages located right on the zero line, and in many villages there are houses where the front door is in India ,and other rear door opens into Bangladesh. There is also small riverine portion (Kumar Ananda, 2005). Wire fencing is in progress along this border. Demographic invasion along this border   remains unabated. The main problems while policing Indo-Bangladesh border are incomplete demarcation, the problem of enclaves and problem of areas in adverse possession (Krishnan, 2001).

    Massive undocumented migration poses a grave danger to our national security, social harmony and economic well being (Nath, 2003). On the security threat from the illegal migrants, it is believed that there is a close nexus between the illegal migrants and the extremist group (Reddy, 2004). According to an estimation by the Border Police Department about one thousand cross the border each day and enter West Bengal (Mukherjee, 2003). Illegal migration   has disturbed demographic profile and economic harmony of India in general and West Bengal in particular. These infiltrators are engaged in smuggling of sugar, drug, gold etc. Cattle lifting has been a very common phenomenon in these border areas (Banerjee, 2003).

       In this context one can cite problem created by US-Mexico migration.

The United States and Mexico are currently engaged in high-level

discussions aimed at reforming the policies that govern migration between the two countries (Borderline81, 2001).                                              Large scale infiltration of Bangladeshi nationals is one of the factors responsible for growth of Muslim population in West Bengal and other border areas (Pramanik, 2003).  On the other hand, adopting and practicing anti-minorities (specially anti-Hindu) policies [ enforcing EPA (Enemy Property Act) /VPA( Vested Property Act), Islamization of the Constitution, major communal riots and violence in 1990, 1992, 2001(Hossain, 1997), rapid Islamic orientation of the society by Madrassah  education, Viswa Istema (World  congregation of the Muslims in Bangladesh) and by other  means, policy of forced conversion and ethnic cleansing, (Human Rights Features, 2001) etc.] by the successive Bangladesh governments have been forcing out the Hindus from Bangladesh to India (Hossain, 1997).  Cross border movement of population in Indo- Bangladesh context is generating a range of destabilizing  socio-political, economic, ethnic and communal tension in India ( Alam, 2003).

    In a recent study ( Guha Roy, 2003)  migration survey  enquiring residence history of the migrants using network sampling was emphasized.   In an another  study census data have been used to evaluate migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal. (Sen, 2003). Chattopadhyay and Gupta attempted to measure undocumented population in some areas of 24 parganas during intercensal period on the basis of census data using some imputation techniques (Chattopadhyay and Gupta, 2003). Another study pointed that India’s Farakka Barrage(Saikia, 2003) has become a disaster for Bangladesh and which ultimately forces(Ahmed,1998) people to migrate without any travel documents across the border towards Indian side. One Journalist expressed that this illegal migration is changing geographic maps of Karimpur, Tehatta, Chapra and Krishnaganj of Nadia district (Banerjee, 2003). Indian Border security force with their limited resources was vulnerable to this illegal  migration and this illegal migration is posing security threat to nation (Nath, 2003).        


Study Objective


   The main objective of this paper is to study perceptions of professionals on demographic impact of  forced illegal migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal, a state in India. Mainly it will investigate effect of illegal migration on fertility, mortality, and age structure of West Bengal.  It also takes into account the views of the respondents regarding policy issues to cope with problems of illegal migration

   This paper is prepared from a large qualitative report based on perceptions of 115 respondents including demographers, political leaders, economists, administrative officials, teachers at different levels etc, obtained from a qualitative survey done on the basis of purposive sampling in border district of West Bengal.


Why Qualitative


      Qualitative method seems to be adequate for subject oriented social research. This study uses an emergent, exploratory, inductive qualitative approach. Because the basis of such an approach is that one does not predetermine or delimit the directions the investigation might take.

     We have preferred qualitative methodology in this study because of some special suitability and advantages of this method over quantitative method.

 1)  The qualitative methodology addresses concerns with the changing and dynamic nature of reality.

 2) It focuses on a holistic view of what is being studied (via documents, case histories, observations and interviews).

3)  Qualitative data are collected within the context of their natural occurrence.

4) Validity of the Qualitative findings are paramount so that data are representative of a true and full picture of  real situation under investigation.

      In-depth interview guides which are not as structured as quantitative questionnaires are being used in this study. Questions tend to be open-ended (Bailey, 1978) and allow flexibility in probing perceptions of individuals, as well as areas of particular interest and relevance. As is typical in most in-depth interviews, the interview format used in this study is open-ended questions (Bailey, 1978).  .


Procedure of data collection

In the present study  perceptions of respondents were obtained from a Qualitative Survey done on the basis of purposive sampling in Kolkata and 24 Parganas, Nadia, Murshidabad, Maldah, Dinajpur, Darjiling and Kooch Bihar districts of West Bengal.. Respondents were drawn from Political leaders, Administrators (At District Level - Sabhadhipati of Zilla Parishad / District Magistrate; at Sub Divisional Level - Sub Divisional Officer; at Block Level - Sabhapati , Panchayet Samiti / BDO; at Corporation Level - Mayor/ Mayor-in-Council/ Councilors; at Municipality Level - Chairman/ Commissioner; at Gram Panchayet Level - Panchayet Pradhan), Economists, Health Personnel, Demographers, Sociologists, Statisticians, Journalists and Teachers at different levels.

Accessibility to the eminent professionals was very difficult since they were preoccupied with their busy  schedule. They were informed by official letter seeking permission for access of investigators for  interview.  Then they were pre-informed by telephone and then date and time of interview were fixed. Investigators filled up the open-ended interview guide.                                                                                                                          Strict confidentiality was maintained while filling the schedule and   transforming the descriptive information into main key words suitable for analysis.


Limitation of the Study


This study is subject to some constraints

 (1) This qualitative research is not based on statistically representative sample

 (2)  The findings are not statistically projectable to the population under study

3) The very nature of qualitative research necessitates small sample sizes

In this study illegal migrants are defined as

The persons who have entered West Bengal from Bangladesh without valid documents in post 1971 period.


Findings :

Profile of Research Site : 

    West Bengal, an Indian State is our research site. The state is bounded by 9 border districts with Bangladesh. These districts are Kolkata, 24 Parganas (North, South), Nadia, Murshidabad, Malda, West Dinajpur (North and South), Nadia, Koochbehar, and Jalpaiguri. Almost all border districts except Jalpaiguri were covered for qualitative survey.                         In Kolkata, 36 respondents and in 24 Parganas 38 respondents comprising of demographers, economists, sociologists, faculties of different colleges and universities, political leaders and administrative officials including District Magistrate, Sub-divisional Officers, Block Development Officers etc were interviewed. In the border areas of other districts, [i.e, Nadia (11respondents), Murshidabad (10 respondents), Malda (7respondents), Dinajpur (4 respondents) Darjeeling (5 respondents) and CoochBehar (10 respondents)] professionals mainly comprised of political leaders, administrative officials, and teachers at different levels.           

Profile of   Respondents

    Respondents consist of 97 males and 18 females out of which 104 persons were Hindus and 11persons were Muslims.  Professional group comprises of 36 individuals including doctors, economists, demographers, sociologists, faculties of different colleges and universities. Nine journalists of different newspapers, eighteen political leaders of different political parties, thirty seven administrative officials belonging to the rank of District Magistrate, Subdivisional Officers, Block Development Officers,  Zilla  Sabhadhipati,  Panchayat Pradhan etc. were selected as respondents. The ‘others’ group consists of low profile section of our social strata e.g Tangawala, rickshawala, artisan, tantubay(weaver)   etc.

Impact on Demography


Effect on Child Mortality


      Respondents were asked to give their opinions regarding the effects on child mortality of West Bengal due to this massive flow of illegal migration. Mixed responses were obtained.  About half of the respondents expressed that child mortality of West Bengal has increased  due to influx of Bangladeshi migrants. Twenty percent stated that it has decreased.  Nineteen percent believe that there was no significant change on child mortality of West Bengal  due to illegal Bangladeshi migrants. About ten percent could say nothing regarding the impact on child mortality.


Child Mortality by Reasons


    Perceptions of professionals regarding the reasons of increase or decrease in child mortality are obtained from multiple responses which are not mutually exclusive. Some respondents(thirty five) comment that child mortality decreased due to social services, proper treatment, post natal care provided by health worker. Thirty one respondents believe that settlement of migrants mostly in unhygienic conditions coupled with poor nutrition, scarcity of food indeed  contributed to morbidity and child mortality. Twenty two professionals explained that unawareness, illiteracy of the migrants and unhygienic condition in the new environment may cause child mortality. There were thirty three respondents who mentioned that lack of proper health care facilities did increase child mortality. According to one sociologist “The proportion of child mortality has increased due to improper  child  health care system for these migrants”.

        As per opinion of one doctor

    “Child mortality has increased  mostly due  to poverty,  illiteracy, social unawareness, new environment, unsettled condition  of the migrants”.

      There is opposite view also : Thirty five respondents said that child mortality decreased due to social services provided by health worker/proper treatment, prenatal and post natal care etc .

 “Child mortality is not so significant as it is supposed to be. They get minimum health care facility to survive.”.: ------- opinion of  one professor.


Effect on Adult Mortality


      Influx of illegal migration from Bangladesh affected adult mortality of West Bengal.  About 42 percent respondents pointed that there is no significant change in adult mortality of West Bengal due to these infiltration. Some (25%) responded that adult mortality has increased.  Twenty percent were in favour of decreasing adult mortality due to these migrants.  Few could say nothing.


Reasons of Adult Mortality


      The respondents who expressed their opinion in favour of increase or decrease in adult mortality were asked separately the reasons for decrease or increase in  adult mortality. Few expressed that adult mortality was not affected since they have more immunity and can stand for any struggle. Thirty seven respondents supported that social services provided by health worker / proper treatment may cause decrease in adult mortality.

    The reasons given for increase in adult mortality are mainly a) poverty/unsettled condition/scarcity of food, b) illiteracy/unhygienic living conditions/ unawareness,  c) lack of proper health care facilities

      One Doctor in Calcutta said :                                                                             “ Too much hard work, belonging to lower social strata, unawareness, inability to buy medicines, sufferings from disease like TB etc caused adult mortality. After buying food grains, no money was left for purchasing medicine. On the other hand buying medicine will make the whole family to starve.”

      Comments of one  statistician :                                                                         “The migrants may have been subject to higher mortality. But since the migrants form a small fraction of the total population of West Bengal, this is not likely to make a significant impact on the mortality of the total population.”


Effect on Population Growth


     Though there is no specific qualitative study on effects of illegal migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal as such, most of the findings from this qualitative study corroborate  to the  facts and findings obtained from literatures (Chakrobarty, et al, 1997),  news reports and magazines. As per one news report millions are coming  in Assam,Tripura, West Bengal and other neighbouring state (Reddy, 2004 ). In present qualitative survey most of the respondents  gave  opinion in favour of faster population growth due to these migrants.  Eighty seven percent respondents believe that population of West Bengal have increased faster due to the illegal migration from Bangladesh. Ten percent respondents hold the view that population increased at slower rate due to these migrants.

      According to one respondent who is an economist and  professor of a college in Kolkata:

        “ The high rate of growth of population due to these illegal migrants is not detected in the census because when the census officials go to enumerate in the households  they will not be present. So they are not recorded. Border Securty Force(BSF) allows them to cross the border illegally in exchange of money or other means. People were safe during the regime of Sheikh Hasina (1996-2001). But when Kheleda Zia came into power (1991-96, 2001 onwards ) people started migrating more”.           Those 100 informants whose opinions were in favour of faster population growth due to the illegal migration were asked the reasons of the same. Multiple responses were obtained and these were not mutually exclusive.  About seventy two  responses  were obtained which pointed that high  birth rate / high fertility among incoming illegal migrants may be the probable cause  of  population increasing faster in West Bengal. In support of this fact the remark of Prof..Ashis Bose, the India’s leading demographer may be cited : Growth of Muslim Population in India is due to high fertility among Muslim Bangladeshi migrants. High fertility among Muslims is also  supported by evidences from recent news reports and magazines (Gilani, 2005). Prof Bose supported that Bangladeshi Muslim settled in some regions of India are now deciding the fate of politicians. Some districts of West Bengal account for substantive Muslim  population(Gilani, 2005). Fourteen responses indicated religious taboos among the  Muslim  migrants as one of the cause of fast population growth in West Bengal since most Muslims do not accept family planning method for birth control due to  religious taboos. Illiteracy and lack of awareness about family planning were mentioned as probable cause of population growth by some professionals (46 responses).  Some of the respondents believe that migration by family and polygamy among Muslims  may be other responsible factors for population increasing faster.

     As per opinion of one scholar unchecked illegal migrants is important factor in 20 parliamentary assembly seats, mostly in West Bengal and Assam. The illegal migrants have changed demographic profile in border districts of West Bengal and in some metropolitan cities in India ( Sinha, 2000 )

     Comments of a political leader :

     “Population increased faster due to family migration. Migrated people went on reproducing. It increased due to lack of knowledge about family planning and social unawareness among the migrants”.

    One Sub-Divisional Officer said “Polygamy and religious taboos among Muslims are responsible for high population growth.


Impact on working age group


     The study of  age structure of a population helps to identify the nature of population of a region i.e whether a population is young or old. Higher proportion of population in 15-59 age group compared to  0-14 and 60+  population reflects young population structure and high economically active population. Our main concern was to find out whether this illegal migration has any impact on population of working age group in West Bengal. Respondents were asked “Do you expect population of working age group will increase due to these illegal migration ?”

       Most of the respondents (92%)  believe that  undocumented migrants have contributed to increase in  number of males of working age group in West Bengal. Eighty percent of professionals supported increase in working females in age group of 15-59 due to these illegal migrants. Since single income was not enough females also migrated for earning.  Illegal migrants having poor academic background are mostly engaged in informal sectors of West Bengal. They work as daily labourer, wage earner. Some express that undocumented migration has no significant impact on male and female of working age group.

   Respondents were asked about the reasons of immigration of economically active population from Bangladesh. Out of 106 respondents who expressed in favour of increased working male, seventy seven respondents pointed that lack of job opportunity in Bangladesh and economic stability in West Bengal  would be the main reason for crossing the border illegally by working males. Due to lack of proper employment in the place of origin working age male migrat for permanent settlement and earning. Some (eighty eight responses) commented that lack of rights and facilities and economic crisis(Datta et al, 2004) in Bangladesh forced the economically active population to enter West Bengal without valid documents. Some people (twenty seven persons out of 106) believe that there was great influx due to migration by families. There are two interviewees who reported that working  males are not coming.  Six respondents could say nothing.

      While answering the reasons of migration of economically active female population, sixty one respondents pointed out that since single income was not sufficient to maintain the family, therefore the female members engaged themselves in domestic household work in West Bengal. Some respondents were of the opinion that the illegal influx was strengthened by family migration.

    About six respondents  could not state any reason for coming. We quote the opinion of faculty:

   “First working males enter in search of jobs, after they settle in a secured position, the whole family with working female migrates for permanent settlement” .


Policy Issues

    Regarding policy issues (Datta, Sadhu, Bhattacharya, Majumdar, 2004

b)  respondents argue that the whole issue of illegal migrants should be judged with human face since they are forced and uprooted from their residence by some political, religious, social and economic forces prevailing in the center of origin. Granting special work permit in some cases is also required. Repatriation may be a solution in other cases. Respondents were asked “ Do you agree that fencing and BSF cannot stop infiltration, given the long porous border ?  The views of the respondents were:

       About 58% professionals comment that fencing and Border Security Force with limited resources  cannot stop infiltration.  Negative attitude of  corrupt BSF often helps the illegal migrants to cross over the border.  Respondents believe that it requires proper implementation (Datta et al, 2004a) and monitoring of fencing with efficiency, transparency, political commitment and strong will.

     One demographer points out: “ The BSF keeps vigilance along the long porous border between India and Bangladesh. Besides patrolling they intercept illegal migrants from across the border. I do not believe all infiltrations are intercepted”. 

    Sixteen percent hold the view that negative attitude of BSF often help the illegal migrants to cross the border.

      As per opinion of one  Faculty memberof a college: “ Corrupt BSF can not stop infiltration. One can cross the border by paying Rs 70  which is divided between BSF(Border Security Force) and BDR (Bangladesh Rifles)”. 

      According to another faculty member: “ It seems that  there is nothing like Indo Bangladesh border. Our Bangladesh maid servant goes there  after every two/four months. When asked she replies in a manner as if she went to any nearby place. Free movement is going on across the border.”




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acknowledgement :  Authors are grateful to Prof. Samir Guha Roy for his advise while preparing the schedules and guidance during project work.


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