While the bulk of Africans entering India are students, the numbers for Uganda, in particular, seem to be a data error, as it increased from less than a thousand to over 15,000 between 2001-11. Hindustan Times
While the bulk of Africans entering India are students, the numbers for Uganda, in particular, seem to be a data error, as it increased from less than a thousand to over 15,000 between 2001-11. Hindustan Times

India is not being overrun by immigrants

  • Long-delayed data from the mammoth 2011 census offers hard evidence to answer politically volatile questions
  • The number of Indian residents born outside the country fell from 6.2 mn to 5.3 mn between 2001 and 2011, taking the immigration rate down from 0.6% to 0.4%

Anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments rage across the world, from North America and Europe to China and India. Both those sentiments merged together in India with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which sought to offer immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh a path to citizenship, as long as they were not Muslim. With the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promising to turn the Bill into law in its 2019 poll manifesto, religion firmly and decisively entered into the lexicon of Indian citizenship.

The message was clear: “illegal" immigrants are welcome as long as they are not Muslim. Till date, strong pushback against the Bill has come only from people in the North-East, a region with a long and complex migration history. The north-east corner of India was against all “illegal" immigrants—most of whom originate from Bangladesh and to a lesser extent, Myanmar.

Hard numbers on the stocks and flows of immigration, legal or illegal, have been missing from this debate. How many people actually come into India and from where? For the first time in many years, long-delayed data from the mammoth 2011 census exercise offers hard evidence to answer some politically volatile questions.

Firstly, the number of Bangladeshis in India is actually falling, according to the census. Also, a number of Indians have begun to return from foreign destinations like the US, Australia and the Gulf countries, as a nascent economic boom took root in the mid-2000s. Finally, Bangladeshis and Nepalese are most likely looking at better prospects in Europe and the Persian Gulf as new migrant trails emerge, leaving a ripple effect on their eventual numbers in India.

Geography of Immigration

Immigration research across the world is primarily based on census data. In most countries, including India, migration data is collected on the basis of two definitions—place of birth and place of residence. The latter definition is useful to capture return migration. Under-reporting biases exist as undocumented migrants may lie to enumerators or simply hide during the enumeration process. Nevertheless, because under-reporting biases exist in all censuses, as long as the reason for under-reporting doesn’t change, as it seems to be the case in India between 2001 and 2011, census figures command value in understanding trends.

In the US and major countries of Western Europe, the immigration rate, or share of the population that is immigrant (foreign-born), tends to range between 10-15%. In India, the immigration rate has tended to be less than 1%. The number of Indian residents who were born outside the country fell from 6.2 million to 5.3 million between 2001 and 2011, taking the immigration rate down from 0.6% to 0.4%.

Naveen Kumar Saini/Mint
Naveen Kumar Saini/Mint


The number of people reporting countries outside India as their last place of residence, which would include immigrants as well as return migrants, rose marginally from 5.2 million to 5.5 million, at a decadal growth rate of 6.5%, half of India’s overall population growth rate. The discrepancy in trends based on the two definitions is simply a reflection of one fact: Indians residing abroad are increasingly returning as the country’s economic prospects improve. While the numbers are still low, the unidirectional exodus of Indians out of the country is now tempered by a reverse flow.

The above fact can be deduced from the origin points. There is a high growth in immigration into India from the Persian Gulf, US, Canada, UK and Australia and even countries in Africa. Some of these are most likely return migrants. It is hard to distinguish between the two because returning children of Indians who were born abroad are lumped with other immigrants in the place-of-birth category. The number of people born in the US and enumerated in India grew ten-fold from roughly 3,000 in 2001 to 36,000 by 2011, a significant part concentrated in Bengaluru (in all likelihood, a group comprising highly paid expats and returning software professionals with their children in tow).

Similarly, the numbers from United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia increased threefold. While the bulk of Africans entering India are students, the numbers for Uganda, in particular, seem to be a data error, as it increased from less than a thousand to over 150,000 between 2001 and 2011. Overall, however, there is little doubt that the volumes of immigrants or return migrants from regions outside South Asia surged between 2001 and 2011, in a decade that also witnessed higher emigration rates from India.

The share of South Asia in total inflows has, therefore, fallen. The number of Sri Lankans remained roughly the same at around 150,000 on the basis of last residence and fell from over 200,000 to 183,000 on the basis of birth, reflecting mainly the refugee population in Tamil Nadu, with over 40,000 enumerated in the Nilgiris district alone. The genesis of this phenomenon is over three decades of internal conflict in Sri Lanka that pushed out hundreds of thousands of people to many parts of the world.

Nepalese numbers rose by around 30% between 2001-11 to around 800,000, but curiously, it fell by 6% for males and grew by 60% for females. There are two aspects of Nepalese immigration to India. One is the cross-border migration for marriage around Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, dating back centuries, but which appears to have risen tremendously. The other aspect is the labour migration through a porous border, which is male-dominated and directed across Indian districts but concentrated in metropolitan cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, and smaller urban centres, especially Shimla. Nepal’s growing connection with the Persian Gulf in the previous decade appears to have reduced its labour outflow to India. It is the second most important location after Bangladesh in India’s immigration profile.

The figure for Pakistan reflects primarily the Partition effect, declining every census year as the old die, dropping from 1.3 million in 2001 to 900,000 in 2011 on the basis of birth. The figure for Myanmar in the census remained roughly the same at around 50,000, half of whom are based in South India, reflecting historic mass migration connections until the middle of the 20th century. Mizoram is another major host of immigrants from Myanmar.

The recent Rohingya refugee crisis, not captured by census 2011, led to a swelling of the number of Burmese refugees in Bangladesh and the numbers in India are hard to verify. This has not stopped wild claims on social media, which portray this inflow as a danger to India’s national security, unlike the uncontroversial reception of Sri Lankan or Tibetan refugees in the recent past, in far greater numbers.

The Bangla story

Bangladesh is, however, the key location in India’s immigration imagery and it is here that the census numbers are most striking. Based on the basis of birth, the number for Bangladeshis fell from 3.7 million in 2001 to 2.7 million, and based on the place of residence, it fell from 3.1 million to 2.3 million in 2011. A part of this decline, as with Pakistan, is the mortality effect on old migrations, triggered by the partition of India in 1947 and partition of Pakistan in 1971. But these numbers fell even for those migrations reported in the decade preceding the census, from 280,000 (1992-2001) to 172,000 (2002-11). It fell substantially across almost all states of India and especially the major hosting states along the border—West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.

It should be pointed out that under-reporting concerns related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) did not change between 2001 and 2011 and this trend is likely to be real for legal and most probably undocumented migrations. It also gels well with the literature on Bangladeshi emigration where a diversification to the Persian Gulf and even Europe has been observed over the past two decades. Most importantly, Bangladesh’s transformation in human development indicators has reduced the need to move to India.

However, the anti-illegal-Bangladeshi-immigrant chorus has gripped India, with a figure of “20 million" making the rounds for more than a decade. It was a number stated by the government in the Rajya Sabha in 2016 in response to a question. It is a number circulating on social media. It is also a number without a methodology.

So, the immigrant stock (all residents) is unknown. The flow (annual influx) is made up completely as imagery—of people pouring into India from across the border, like termites, as one prominent politician recently remarked. But are Bangladeshis really craving to come to India, let alone render it hollow?

The falling trend for Bangladesh perhaps provides a reason for the unusually long delay in the release of migration data from census 2011, which has come out only in 2019. Migration figures have traditionally received less priority and tend to come late in the data flow released from the census office. But a provisional D-5 table was released in 2016, enabling migration analysis for a chapter in the Economic Survey that year but did not provide data on immigration. If it did, it could have influenced the citizenship debate that year.

All-India NRC

Despite the word “national" in the NRC, its history in India has primarily been confined to the north-eastern state of Assam. Demographically one of the fastest growing regions of the world in the 20th century through mass migration and at the frontier of the partitions of 1947 and 1971, it has complex claims on who is an Assamese or a citizen of India. The Assam Accord and call for the NRC in Assam should be seen as the result of a political bargaining process with no clear plans on how actual deportation of “illegal" migrants would occur. In the recent draft round, of around 33 million people who applied, four million were left out to reapply. It is a torturous process.

But the current government now plans to implement the NRC all over India. Chart 1 shows the immigration rate across India at the district level recorded by census 2011 and shows that it is confined to districts along the border and some pockets in Central and South India that host refugee populations. In over 500 of the 640 districts of India in 2011, the immigration rate was under 0.5%.

Chart 2 shows the stock of Bangladeshi immigrants recorded by the census and again shows the thin distribution across the country. Assuming this is legal immigration, the question to ask is how many are likely to be “illegal". In Assam, one can understand substantial under-reporting in the census because of persistent NRC fears that have played out over decades. But in other places, under-reporting is likely to be much less. What the two maps show is that outside a few districts along India’s border with Bangladesh, illegal immigration from Bangladesh is likely to be a tiny fraction of the population.

The proposed all-India NRC is eerily similar to demonetization if you substitute illegal migrants with fake notes. Both are attempted “purification" processes where the costs massively outweigh the benefits.

Chinmay Tumbe teaches economics at IIM-Ahmedabad, and is the author of India Moving: A History of Migration.

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