1. Population Explosion in
West Bengal: A Survey
(A Study by South Asia Research Society, Calcutta)
On account of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, refugees moved from Pakistan, without much interruption, to various parts of India, especially to West Bengal, till 1971, when political boundaries in South Asia were redrawn. Even after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971, however, the march of refugees to West Bengal appeared to be ceaseless. Nevertheless, there is one great difference in the patterns of migration before and after 1971. In the days of Pakistan, nearly all refugees coming to West Bengal were members of the minority communities in East Bengal (East Pakistan), viz. Buddhists, Christians and Hindus. In the Bangladesh era, however, in addition to the forced migration of members of minority community (the overwhelming majority being Hindus) to West Bengal, there has been largescale voluntary infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims (forming the majority community in that country) to West Bengal and other parts of India. Certainly, the Government of India and the Government of West Bengal are not unaware of this grim phenomenon. Occasionally, the Home Minister of the Government of India and the Chief Minister of West Bengal have expressed serious concern over this problem. This brief survey - its brevity attributable to the barrier of needless secrecy against the free flow of census data (unexpected in a democratic country like India) - aims at unraveling the mystery of population explosion in a progressive state like West Bengal, as also at arousing the consciousness of the public about the factor of migration /infiltration underlying this explosion, which cannot but pose a mounting challenge to vital national interests.
Table 1.1: Population in West Bengal 1941-91
Source: Statistical Abstract, West Bengal, 1978-89 (Combined Issue), Bureau of Applied Economics and Statistics.
In accordance with estimates prepared by the Government of West Bengal, 44.5 lakhs of refugees came from East Bengal (East Pakistan) to West Bengal during 1946-1970.1 The 1981 Census contained an important clue to the persistence of migration / infiltration to West Bengal. The population growth rate declined from 26.9% in 1961-71 to 23.2% in 1971-81. Yet, the 1981 Census recorded a population of 4,67,000 in excess of the population derived from differences in birth /death rates. If one excluded these 4,67,000 persons - who obviously moved to West Bengal from other regions inside/outside India - the population growth rate in 1971-81 would have declined from 23.2% to 22.1%. Actually, in West Bengal, on account of an expansion of education and family planning programmes, as also of a pronounced rise in social consciousness, the population growth rate during 1981-91 should have fallen below 22%, and demographic experts of the Government of India perceptively forecast the rate of 20.79% for this period. Evidently, this forecast was upset by migration /infiltration from Bangladesh. For, the 1991 Census puts the decadal growth rate at 24.55%, i.e. higher than that in 1971-81. Where and how could this unexpected rate of population growth take place?2
Natural Population Increase in 1981-91:
Every year the Registrar General of India conducts sample surveys, and estimates the annual rates of birth and death. Table 1.2 communicates these rates for West Bengal during 1981-90.
Table 1.2: Birth and Death
Rates in West Bengal 1981-90
Source: Sample Registration Survey Reports by the Registrar General of India.
Column 4 of Table 1.2 demonstrates that the estimated natural population increase in West Bengal during 1981-91 stands at 21.9%. [This estimate is prepared on the basis of natural population increase in course of a decade, i.e. r1 r2 …. r10, and in accordance with the formula, viz R = (1+ r1) (1+r2) (1+r3) …. (1+r10) - 1.] The estimate of the expert committee on population growth rate was 1.1% below 21.9%, i.e. the rate of natural increase during 1981-91. Nevertheless, the actual population growth rate exceeded the rate of natural population increase by 2.7%, and stood at 24.6% during 1981-91. This increase can largely be accounted for by the influx of people from Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and other regions of India. Thus, the number of migrants / infiltrators to West Bengal during 1981-91 can be calculated at 14,74,000, i.e. 11% of the total population increase of 1,34,00,000.3 The actual number of outsiders in West Bengal is likely to be much higher, because a very large number of them have presumably escaped detection by Census personnel.
It has been suggested that, during 1971-81 and 1981-91, West Bengal has accommodated 2 million outsiders. Actually, this number should be much larger, because, from Bangladesh alone, 2.95 million Bengali-speaking Hindus have entered into India (mainly West Bengal) during 1974-1991.4 As Mohiuddin Ahmed, a renowned journalist of Bangladesh, writes: “Thus, we encounter a scenario of ‘missing Hindu population’ in the successive census periods. The extent of this missing population was about 1.22 million during the period of 1974-1981, and about 1.73 million during the last intercensual period 1981-91. As many as 475 Hindus are ‘disappearing’ every day from the soil of Bangladesh on an average since 1974. How this phenomenon would be interpreted in terms of demography? The relevant parameter is obviously ‘migration’ which provides a clue to the missing link.”5 The following Table illustrates the rise and fall of Hindu and Muslim population in the last fifty year in Bangladesh.
Source: Bangladesh Population Census in 1981 and 91.
It is noteworthy that, of the nearly ten million Hindu refugees leaving East Pakistan for India in course of the 1971 liberation struggle, a large number did not return to Bangladesh. Moreover, of those who returned, a big number, failing to recover movable / immovable properties looted / misappropriated during 1971, came back to India in one or two years. These refugees have not been taken into account by the Bangladesh Census reports. Their number soars above 3 million.6
After the successful conclusion of the Bangladesh liberation struggle in 1971, only 2,00,000 out of 1 million stranded non-Bengalis (usually called Biharis) in Bangladesh, could obtain help from International Red Cross Society in order to move over to Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan trumped up a variety of excuses to avoid the repatriation of the other 8,00,000 Biharis, who were compelled to stay on in Bangladesh. As of late 1994 - i.e. after the lapse of 23 years since 1971 - only 2,50,000 Biharis were found to be living amidst subhuman conditions at 66 camps in Bangladesh.7 Actually, in terms of a natural population increase, the 8,00,000 Biharis should have swelled to more than 1.3 million by 1994. To the question of where have the more than 1 million Biharis vanished from Bangladesh since 1971, the obvious answer is, they have surreptitiously moved into their ancestral places in India (notably in Bihar), and settled down. In one of his recent election utterances, Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Chief Minister of Bihar, has confessed to granting ration cards and voting rights to 100,000 Biharis from Bangladesh.8 It may be added that some Governments have loudly complained about infiltration of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis into such important cities as Bombay and New Delhi.
In addition, for the 1981-91 period, Bangladesh Census authorities detect the somewhat unique phenomenon of “missing population”, and estimates the number at 8 million.9 As already indicated, 1.73 million Hindus are to be included in the figure of 8 million. It is, therefore, entirely plausible that the remainder of 8 million, i.e. 6.27 million Muslims, have infiltrated into various parts of India, notably West Bengal. The Government of Bangladesh naturally observes silence on this vital issue, this silence being occasionally broken by a hackneyed repetition of the announcement that there are no Bangladeshis in India.
It is, therefore, pertinent to affirm that 6 million Hindus have left Bangladesh for India during 1971-1991, and not less than 6 million Bangladeshi Muslims have infiltrated into India during 1981-1991. To this should be added 1 million stranded Biharis in Bangladesh moving to India. Since the extent of Muslim infiltration during 1971-1981 awaits appraisal, it is fair to conclude that at least - at least - 13-14 million migrants/infiltrators have crossed over from Bangladesh to India from 1971 to 1991. A large number of these outsiders have taken shelter in various parts of West Bengal, including the sensitive border areas. In order to facilitate a clear comprehension of this phenomenon, we provide below a Table recording the district wise population growth rate in West Bengal as also the categorisation of this population by religion. It is not logical to explain this growth by reference to migration from other states in India to West Bengal. For, in course of the 1981-1991 decade, West Bengal has witnessed a decrease, rather than increase, of employment in the organised sector.10 As to migrants from Bhutan and Nepal, they mostly reside in the districts of Coochbehar, Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, whereas their number is too insignificant in comparison to the number of migrants from Bangladesh.
reports of 1981 and 1991 indicate that, in course of the 1981-91 decade,
the number of Hindus in West Bengal has decreased by 2.27%, whereas the
number of Muslims in West Bengal has increased by 2.06%. Whereas the number
of Hindus in West Bengal has risen by 21.05%, the number of Muslims in
West Bengal has shot up by 36.67%. In every district of West Bengal, the
contrast between a decline in Hindu population and an extraordinary upswing
in Muslim population is indeed remarkable. Even in Calcutta itself, the
Muslim population has gone up by 53.67%, but the Hindu population has moved
up by 30.79%. In a number of districts, the rate of growth of Muslim population
is double or more than double that of Hindu population. Six such districts
are listed below:
in the following districts, the rate of growth of Muslim population has
been significantly higher than that of Hindu population:
It is noteworthy that in Calcutta, Nadia and West Dinajpur, the rate of growth of Hindu population has surpassed the decadal growth rate of 24.55%. In other districts, the rate of growth of Hindu population is much below 24.55%. In contrast, in every district of West Bengal, the rate of growth of Muslim population is much higher than 24.55%.
Table 1.4 demonstrates how this acute disparity in the rates of population growth translates itself into actual population figures. For example, in the district of Maldah, the number of Hindus has gone up from 11,07,192 in 1981 to 13,77,000 in 1991, registering a net increase of 2,69,808. In sharp contrast, the number of Muslims has shot up from 9,19,918 in 1981 to 12,52,000 in 1991, the net increase being 3,32,082. In other words, in ten years, the Muslim population has leapt from being 45.27% of the total population to being 47.47%, whereas the Hindu population has come down from forming 54.49% of the total population to forming 52.21%. Keeping in view such a fast-changing demographic scenario, one can certainly start worrying about the future of West Bengal.
A pertinent query is whether the excessively high rate of growth of Muslim population in all the districts of West Bengal is solely due to infiltration by Bangladeshis. Alternatively, one can ask whether it is permissible to affirm that Muslims in West Bengal are far less concerned about birth control, and far more backward in family planning, than Hindus in West Bengal.
In the Muslim society, the impact of religious propaganda upon daily life is enormous. Fundamentalist notions are growing stronger among Muslims. The belief that Islam opposes birth control is still prevalent. Not to speak of Fatwas (directives) from Mullahs or Maulanas, even preachings by a section of Muslim intellectuals have reinforced this belief. Far from the introduction of compulsory measures in public interest, neither the Government of India nor any state Government has even encouraged voluntary birth control among Muslims. Consequently, even though population control is universally recognised today as a key contributor to economic upliftment, the GRP among Muslims is very high. Actually, in nearly all Muslim countries of the world - whether in the richest or the poorest category - the total fertility rate (TFR) is significantly high, as is the GRP.11 It may be relevant in this context to refer to Bangladesh Contraceptive Survey, 1991, which observes: “It has been found that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) among the non-Muslims is relatively lower than among the Muslims, the difference ranged from 7% to 12% in the eighties. It has never been claimed that the Hindus have higher mortality rate. It is likely that they have lower mortality rate due to higher extent of immunisation among their children.”12 There is no reason why this observation about Bangladesh should not be applicable to Hindus and Muslims in West Bengal too.
The above noted facts - and the attendant analyses - make it quite clear that, on account of ceaseless infiltration from Bangladesh, and the tremendously high rate of growth of Muslim population, West Bengal, with 766 persons per square kilometer, has emerged as the state having the highest density of population in the whole of India. West Bengal occupies 2.77% of India’s land area, and accommodates 8.06% of its population. The actual pressure of population upon West Bengal may indeed be higher than what is estimated from Census data, which are seldom complete.
Anyway, where is West Bengal
destined to go?
2 Satchidananda Dutta Roy, Paschimbangabasi, K.P. Bagchi, Calcutta, 1994, p. 21 (in Bengali).
3 Ibid., p. 22.
4 Mohiuddin Ahmed, “The Missing Population”, Holiday, Weekly, Dhaka, 7 January 1994.
6 Bimal Pramanik, “Interface of Migration and Inter-Religious Community Relations in Bangladesh and Eastern India”, a paper presented at a Workshop organised by Bharat Bangladesh Maitri Samiti in Calcutta on 12 May 1990. This paper makes an extensive use of Census reports of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
7 For details, see The Telegraph, English daily, Calcutta, 26 September 1994.
8 Anandabazar Patrika, Bengali daily, Calcutta, 8 March 1995.
9 For details, see Bangladesh Population Census 1991, Vol. 2, December, 1993; and Report of the Task Force on Bangladesh: Development Strategies for the 1990’s, Vol. 1, University Press Ltd., Dhaka, 1991, p. 20.
10 Satchidananda Dutta Roy, op. cit., p. 23.
11 World Population Projections, 1994-95 Edition, published for the World Bank, The University Press, Baltimore and London.
Mohiuddin Ahmed, “The Missing Population”, op. cit.