Climate Change, Migration and Conflicts in Assam-Bangladesh: Why we need better reports than this

A new report named “Climate Change, Migration andClimateMigrationSubContinent_COVER Conflicts in South Asia: Rising tension and Policy options across the sub-continent” was published in December 2012 by Center for American Progress and Heinrich Böll Foundation. This report, authored by Arpita Bhattacharyya and Michael Werz has analyzed how migration and security concerns are overlapping in the era of climate change in South Asia. Even though the title of the report mentions South Asia, it is mainly focused on India and Bangladesh. The central argument of the report is that an inevitable threat of climate change will intensify migration from Bangladesh to Northeast India, in general and Assam in particular.

In this report the authors have examined the role of climate change, migration, and security broadly at the national level in India and Bangladesh. Discussing the focus and relevance of the report the authors write “In this paper we examine the role of climate change, migration, and security broadly at the national level in India and Bangladesh—and then zero in more closely on northeast India and Bangladesh to demonstrate the interlocking problems faced by the people there and writ larger across all of South Asia.” But the report falls short of indentifying a causal relationship between climate change, migration, and conflict. This report emphasizes on understanding climate change, migration and security as three distinct layers of tension and assesses scenarios in which the three layers will overlap. The report takes Assam, the central state of northeastern border of India as a case study where the three factors converge. But the elements related to this convergence are rather inadequate that required further probing.

The report discusses the Assam movement of 1983 and the    clashes which  occurred in the summers of 2012 between ‘members of the Bodo tribe and  and  Muslim community’. Bringing climate change into the framework the report states “In assessing the security challenges of climate change, Assam provides an example of several factors coming together in a complex way. Climate change will stress existing migration patterns both locally and internationally in Bangladesh. Even more importantly, the perception that there has been an increase in immigrants has the potential to stoke tensions over immigration in Assam.” It seems to be generalization of a very complex process. We have found towering claims like this have very less linkages with the situation on ground(please see our blog – 2012 Floods Displaced 6.9 Million in Northeast-IDMC: Staggering but Highly Exaggerated). The report also mentioned that “Floods in September 2012 displaced 1.5 million people in the northeastern state of Assam” this again is not beyond doubts. The data available from National Disaster Management shows that, highest number of people affected in the floods in September 2012 is 383421.

Climate Change Scenario in India: For India the report draws from the “Climate Change and India: A 4×4 Assesment” (2010) which was prepared by the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests for examining climate change impacts and projections through 2030 across four regions of India (the Himalayan Region, Western Ghats, Northeastern Region, and the Coastal Region) and four key policy sectors: agriculture, forests, human health, and water.

Bangladesh Discussing the situation in Bangladesh the reports deals with rising temperatures which are likely to have severe effects on agricultural production in Bangladesh due to higher rates of evaporation and changing rainfall patterns. According to the authors “Bangladesh could see up to an 8 percent reduction in rice production and a 32 percent reduction in wheat production by 2050…. With 63 percent of the population dependent on agriculture for basic livelihoods, the rise in temperatures could be crippling.”

The report warns about increases both in extent and frequency of floods in the country. Talking about rise in sea level the report states, “The Bangladeshi government projects that the sea level will rise by 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) by 2030, 12.6 inches (32 centimeters) by 2050, and 34.7 inches (88 centimeters) by 2100. Predictions about the displacement of people resulting from a 1-meter (roughly 40 inches) rise in sea-level range from 13 million to 40 million in Bangladesh alone.” The report also discusses cyclone and storm surges, river and coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion. Bringing migration into the picture, the report first discusses rural urban migration within Bangladesh and describes a situation of migrants in the capital city Dhaka “When describing why they came, migrants tell stories of flood and famine in quiet rural towns where options dwindle by the day … these villagers pour into Dhaka at a rate of about 400,000 to 500,000 each year.”

Talking about international migration from Bangladesh, the report states “More informal—but still substantial—migration takes place from Bangladesh to India, especially to the far eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Assam….. It is estimated that approximately 12 million to 17 million Bangladeshi immigrants have come to India since the 1950s, with most residing in the northeast states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura.” In this situation presenting the interplay of migration and climate change the report says, “How climate change will effect migration to Bangladesh’s urban centers is not exactly determined. Even more uncertain is how climate change and Bangladesh’s urban growth will interact to shape international migration, particularly to India. But given the trajectory of available climate change projections and historical precedent, India may continue to be a popular destination for many Bangladeshi migrants.” However this seems to be an opaque statement without any substantiation. Instead of pitching their argument in the ahistorical categorization between an underdeveloped Bangladesh and an emerging India, the author should consider the present human development indicators of Bangladesh vis-à-vis India  (please see “Social indicators of Bangladesh are better than India”).

As a part of the solution, it suggests building of sustainable urban areas where governments manage to guarantee food security, deliver required energy resources, and develop infrastructure to more effectively protect livelihoods in rural areas. However, its suggestion that “economic growth must be maintained to accommodate growing populations and allow society to better prepare itself to deal with the impacts of climate change” seems to suggest that the authors have not understood basics of both economic growth and re-distribution as well as  climate change.

The American Perspective The paper does not provide any adaptation and mitigation measures for climate change. The paper argues for changing the pathways of growth towards greater sustainability. Talking about modern sustainable urban centers the paper focuses on the areas where U.S.-Indian cooperation can happen. The report is written in order to assess how United States can play a pivotal role in the threats and consequences of climate change arena in South Asia and that is why ‘the American perspective’ on the climate change in South Asia can be all pervasively found in the report. The report propose three policy collaborations that the United States can take up with South Asian partners as complex crisis scenarios unfold in the wake of climate change – 1. High-level climate-vulnerable cities workshop, 2. A dialogue on migration and 3. Ecological infrastructure development.

Pressing Critical issues

There are a lot of critical issues with this report which needs to be addressed.

How much migration is actually happening now: The report establishes its firm belief in the fact that large scale migration from Bangladesh to northeastern parts of India is still continuing. The report should have first questioned how much migration is actually happening rather than claiming that there will be increase in migration in the near future. There were several analysis available specially drawn from Government of India’s Census data which shows a complete different picture.  In an article named “Riots & the Bogey of Bangladeshis”, published in Hindu on 8th August 2012,  Delhi base researcher and activist Bonojit Hussain did an analysis of census data and reported that “Even though the religion-wise census figures for 2011 are not yet available, provisional results from the 2011 census show that the decadal growth rate of population between 2001-2011 for Kokrajhar district is 5.19 per cent, interestingly, marking a decline of 9 per cent as compared to the decadal growth rate of 14.49 per cent between 1991 to 2001. (The decadal growth rate for Assam between 1991 to 2001 was 18.92 per cent and 16.93 per cent between 2001-2011)……. The other possibility, which seems more plausible, is that there has been a considerable out-migration from Kokrajhar, especially after the formation of the BTAD in 2003. Since the Bodos (who constitute 20 per cent of the population in the BTAD area) hold a monopoly over political power in the area, it is unlikely that there has been any significant out-migration of the Bodo population from Kokrajhar district. The Koch Rajbangsis, who constitute roughly 17 per cent of the total population of the BTAD, have been campaigning for and demanding a separate homeland — Kamtapur — which territorially overlaps the BTAD, thus making it unlikely that they would out-migrate, abdicating their political claim over the territory. In all probability, the out-migration involves other non-Bodo communities, including Muslims.” The report seems to ignore this reality. It is also important to note that the report has very little to substantiate its assumptions.

Social indicators of Bangladesh are better than India: The report seems to ignore the substantial improvements in social indicators in Bangladesh. A recent review of Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen’s new book ‘An Uncertain Glory,’ states the improved social conditions of Bangladesh in the following way “even Bangladesh has better social indicators than India. It has higher life expectancy (69 vs India’s 65), better sanitation (half of all homes in India have no toilets compared to 10 per cent in Bangladesh), lower infant mortality (37 versus India’s 47) and lower fertility rate (2.2 against 2.6 for India). For those arguing that Bangladesh is a much smaller country, the answer is that its GDP per capita is roughly half that of India’s.”[1]

Is urbanization the only option: The report is biased towards urbanization. The report shows no interest to discuss how rural areas can be prepared to face climate change better. Projecting sustainable urbanization as the solution for migration is presenting only one side of the story. The report also seems like an attempt to push forward American agenda in South Asia. The report laments the facts that the urbanization programmes like JNNURM is facing shortage of funds.  But there are already several examples JNNURM programmes in India which are increasing the debt burden on the people and undermined the traditional sustainable systems.

Are thermal and large hydro-power projects climate friendly: The report on climate change shockingly, reemphasizes on coal based power generation. A study on climate change prescribing for coal based power generation is really very strange.

In another surprise the report, shows bias for (large) hydro power generation, even though hydro-power dams have very severe impacts on river ecology, bio-diversity and climate change. While discussing about water politics between China, India and Bangladesh the report mentioned about the fear of water diversion by China through hydro power dams and its severe impacts on flow of the Brahmaputra. But it makes no mention of more than 150 hydro power projects, which are being planned in Arunachal Pradesh and other north eastern states within the Indian territory and the downstream impacts of these. These projects will dam every major tributary of the Brahmaputra River. These tributaries collectively contribute at least four times more to the flow of the Brahmaputra than Yarlung Tsangpo or Siang, the part of Brahmaputra which flows from China. The report has no reference to any of this.

Internal migration within Assam and India: The report talks about migration from Bangladesh to Assam but it makes no mention of people migrating from rural areas of Assam to other cities due to severe flood and erosion. The report also does not take into account the case of char-dwellers (people living in sand bars) in Bangladesh and Assam. According to the Socio Economic Survey of 2003-04 in 14 districts of Assam, there were 2251 char villages with a population of 24, 90,397.[2] People who live on chars in Assam and in Bangladesh will be directly affected by any change in flow pattern in the rivers.

Spreading propaganda? Though this report is on migration from Bangladesh to Assam, the report presents very little data to back up its claims. Besides, on the issue of increasing Maoist activity in India, the report does a shoddy job. The map showing maoist activities in India is questionable. Since this report accepts the current development path of coal based and large hydro-based power generation unquestionably, the discussion on Maoist activity in India resonate with Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Goigoi’s unfounded attempts at colouring of anti-dam struggle of the people in Assam as Maoist activity. Such uncritical acceptance of Indian government’s unfounded assertions discredits the report.

Parag Jyoti Saikia


[1] http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-inequalities-of-democracy/article4941693.ece

[2] Chakraborty G.,”Distortion  of Natural Watersheds and Land Erosion: The Char Areas Of Assam”, SIBCOLTEJO, Vol. 05 (2010): 18-30

One Comment on “Climate Change, Migration and Conflicts in Assam-Bangladesh: Why we need better reports than this

  1. I like the incisive language…..Looking forward to read more of this type.One of the problems of this report is its presumptions and sweeping generalizations linking political conflicts with climate change and migrations of population without going into detailed substantiations. The Bodo land case stands out as one of the major sore points to justify a criticism of the Report. It lacks seriousness and undermines the intellect of the eastern readers….

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