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Assessing Vicissitudes in India-Bangladesh Relations: An Environmental Perspective

Prashant Kumar Sharma

India-Bangladesh relations in the past have witnessed many vicissitudes, sometimes leading to frictions in their relationship. On the other hand, these two countries have also shown extraordinary cooperation and understanding on many issues of bilateral concerns.


The construction of the Farakka Barrage in 1975 and the allocation of sharing of Ganges water have been one of the most contentious issues in the India–Bangladesh relation. Shloka Nath[1] stated that this construction caused the diversion of Ganges water upstream adversely affecting the Sundarbans. Most parts of the Sundarbans have now surpassed their water-salinity thresholds and degraded much of the fragile ecosystem, which in turn, also enhanced the human migratory trend. The continuous exodus of the Bangladeshi people into the Indian Territory has gone undocumented and it has been noted to have created instability and conflict on the bordering Indian States, particularly in Assam.[2] The migration of Bangladeshis into India is not a new phenomenon, as it was occurring since the pre-partition era.[3] After Bangladesh independence, the large influx of migration was taking place through these porous borders, and it has been labeled as ‘Illegal migration’ in India.[4] Illegal migration across the border has become a regular proclivity, as it constitutes one of the very vital issues of Indian public discourse. Illegal or unauthorized migration[5] has already culminated into a quagmire in which the bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh suffered. Moreover, there are many other issues that affect the quality of the relationship.


There has been a well-established fear in Bangladesh of Indian Hegemony. Tahmima Anam elucidates that Bangladesh has embarked onto go-ahead crossing ‘the great bear hug of India’[6] from its three sides of the border. The well-founded disagreement over the way the whole things related to the Farakka Barrage and the Ganges water sharing went has reportedly made the Bangladesh disgruntled. The issues triggered by the climate change have also been added to a new dimension in the bilateral relationship and particularly over the issues like Sunderbans management. The maritime boundary dispute over the New Moore Island was evident for the cause of disagreement for many years. With the permanent submergence of this island, the long-standing dispute between India and Bangladesh ended.[7] Thereby the magnitude of the climate change impact could be located in the submergence of the New Moore Island due to the rising sea. People are increasingly becoming displaced within their own territory on both sides of the border. However, the matter gets worse when it comes to the large influx of population into other country undocumented. In addition, this is set to affect the relations of India and Bangladesh for longer period. Even, Sahana Bose argues that the issue of migration has severely affected Indian-Bangladeshi relations repeatedly.[8]


Swain has pointed out, ‘Wherever migrants settle, they flood the labour market, and add to local demand for food and other necessities of life, thereby putting new burdens on the receiving society. The assimilation of migrants into a new society is not easy at the best of times, but when it takes place in a developing and multi-ethnic society like India, the situation is likely to get even worse. The resulting scarcities generate strong feelings of ‘nativism’ among the original inhabitants of the area.’[9] The influx of the large-scale environmentally displaced Bangladeshi population into India has triggered many conflicts in various parts of the country.[10] For Instance, Indian state of Assam became the first place to witness conflict in 1979 when a parliamentary by-election to the ‘Mangaldoi Constituency’[11] was called-in due to the demise of the incumbent, but now it has diffused to other parts of India.


Cleo Paskal, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, opines that the prospects of large migration from Bangladesh to India; denote a real threat to India.[12] Therefore, she further clarifies that a stable India is needed and climate migration has the potential to destabilize India. Moreover, trying to put pressure on India to take in refugees will cause undermining of Bangladesh’s credibility in India’s eyes. Myers has surmised that climate refugees from Bangladesh might alone out-number the all-current refugees worldwide.[13] In the last 40 years, the Bangladeshi migrants have flooded the Indian population by 12 to 17 million brought about by environmental scarcity, as stated by Homer-Dixon.[14]


Bommel stated that the Bangladeshi migration to India is a ‘silent demographic invasion.’[15] Bangladesh is the seventh most populated country in the world in spite of its very small size. D.N. Bezboruah argued that Bangladesh would be facing a crisis of ‘lebensraum’ (living space) by the end of the first decade of 21st century.[16] Moreover, Sanjoy Hazarika opined that Bangladesh depicts the ‘Malthusian nightmare, with too many people on too little land.’[17]


The population of any country happens to be an asset for that country, but the situation worsens when the same asset turns fatal for the long-term viability of a country. The rapidly growing population of Bangladesh is a matter of big concern not only for the Bangladesh but also for it would engender tumultuous situation across the Indian Border States.  Bangladesh is surrounded by the so-called ‘great bear hug of India’ from not one but three sides. If any calamity takes place in Bangladesh, none but India would be the optimal destination for the displaced population of Bangladesh. India would be under compulsion to give them access to its resources on the humanitarian ground. Even if this happens, it would not be the first time when India would be lending its friendly hands to Bangladesh.  Increasing population, precisely in the context of Bangladesh, is a disaster in itself. If anybody says that it is not a disaster for Bangladesh then surely it is going to be an impending disaster for India. That is why? the growing Bangladeshi population would be of paramount concern for India as far as its national interest and security is concerned.


However, the sense of co-operation should come out from the both sides, especially from the issue of migration. There is a well-known proverb, ‘one hand can’t make a clap.’ To make a clap, the touch of two hands is required. One hand of India seems eager to give jolt to one of the hands of Bangladesh to be clapped. Nevertheless, Bangladesh seems highly recalcitrant on the issue of migration, and that is bound to create further instability not only on the Indian side but on the sides of Bangladesh too. The lackluster attitude of Bangladesh to accept the stubborn fact of the rampant illegal migration; has already agitated India.


Gupta delineated the recently concluded the Land Boundary Agreement and its ratification by the Indian Parliament in its ‘The constitution (119th Amendment Bill).’ This became the 100th Constitutional amendment for swapping territories between India and Bangladesh that proved to be the landmark agreement, 41 years after the Indira Gandhi and Seikh Mujibur Rahman pact in 1974. This agreement conveyed the positive waves of messages across Bangladesh, and adoption of the bill, to which Bangladesh terms as ‘huge diplomatic success,’[18] and its Foreign Minister AH Mahmood termed it ‘an opening of a new chapter in ties.’ The Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi has compared this agreement to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and stated that this marks ‘a watershed moment in our bilateral ties with Bangladesh (NDTV, 06 June 2015).’


With operationalization of the Land Boundary Agreement, the long lasting dispute between India and Bangladesh seems cease to exist. This landmark effort has shown a new light to India and Bangladesh in ushering their relation to a new height. Bangladesh should come forward on the dais to settle down all outstanding issues pertaining to the question of Illegal migration and forthcoming misery of large influx of climate change affected population.


The urgency to come forward in the positive manner on the part of Bangladesh emanates from the fact that barbed wire fencing of the border by India will obviously worsen the already aggravated situation in Bangladesh in the backdrop of climate change. The climate change impacts are triggering newer dimensions of vulnerability, threats and tension between India and Bangladesh. It is expected that due to the rise of sea level many millions of Bangladeshis in future will take refuge in India, exacerbating further the ongoing dispute between India and Bangladesh.[19] What is required for India and Bangladesh is not to indulge in any blame game; and rather they should proceed to find out the solution of rampant illegal migration; and to improve the environmental integrity through devising a monitoring mechanism for a sustainable future.


To end with, Bose opined that India and Bangladesh should learn a lesson from ASEAN countries with respect to the fair treatment of migrants. She says, ‘Thailand has Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with Burma, Cambodia and Laos that entitle migrant workers in Thailand to receive equal wages and benefits.’[20] Likewise, it is recommended that India should open a legal channel of migration that might be a possible and the most feasible option that would allow the entry of migrants providing them with a pass with the objective to entitle them to receive the minimum wage and other entitlements of the Indian workers.


[1] Nath, Shloka (2011), “Environmental Diplomacy: Saving the Sundarbans and Restoring Indo-Bangladesh Friendship”, Gateway House: Indian Council of Global Relations, pp.1-67.

[2] Swain, Ashok (1996), “Displacing the Conflict: Environmental Destruction in Bangladesh and Ethnic Conflict in India”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 189-204.

[3] Kumar, Chirantan (2009), “Migration and Refugee issue between India and Bangladesh”, Scholar’s Voice: A New Way of Thinking, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2009, pp. 64-82; Alam, Sarfaraz (2003), “Environmentally Induced Migration from Bangladesh to India”, Strategic Analysis, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 422-438.

[4] Bose, Sahana (2014), “Illegal migration in the Indian Sunderbans”, Forced Migration Review: Crisis, p. 22.

[5] Bhattacharyya, Arpita and Michael Werz (2012), “Climate Change, Migration and Conflict in South Asia: Rising tensions and Policy Options across the Subcontinent”, Center for American Progress, pp. 1-75.

[6] Anam, Tahmima (2007), “How Bangladeshis see India”, The Guardian, 14 August 2007, [Online: web] URL: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/aug/14/india.features115.

[7] Sharma, Prashant Kumar (2015), The Impact of Climate Change on Sunderbans: Implications for India-Bangladesh Relation, M. Phil Dissertation, New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University.

[8] Bose, Sahana (2014), “Illegal migration in the Indian Sunderbans”, Forced Migration Review: Crisis, p. 22.


[9] Swain, Ashok (1996), “Displacing the Conflict: Environmental Destruction in Bangladesh and Ethnic Conflict in India”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 189-204.

[10] Alam, Sarfaraz (2003), “Environmentally Induced Migration from Bangladesh to India”, Strategic Analysis, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 422-438.

[11] During the parliamentary by-election to the Mangldoi constituency in March 1979, it was noticed that 70,000 names of Bangladeshi nationals were listed in that single constituency, whereas the previous electoral revision, conducted in 1977 at the time of general election corroborated the fact that the mass arrival had taken place in the later part of the 1970s from Bangladesh. Subsequently, the complete failure of the government to respond to this issue proactively triggered violent agitation by the Assamese under the leadership of All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) and All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) (Swain, 1996).

[12] Friedman, Lisa (2009), “How will Climate Refugee Impact National Security?” [Online: web] URL: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climage-refugees-national-security/.

[13] Myers, N (2002), “Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 357 (1420), pp. 609-13.

[14] Homer-Dixon, T (1994), “Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases”, International security, 19 (1), pp. 5-40.

[15] Bommel, Maxim van (2010), “Good fences don’t make good neighbours: Outlining the complexities of protecting climate displaces, with special reference to India and Bangladesh”, Utrecht University, pp. 1-50.

[16] Bezboruah, D.N. (2002), “Illegal Migration from Bangladesh”, Dialogue, p.47. Quoted in Kumar, Chirantan (2009), “Migration and Refugee issue between India and Bangladesh”, Scholar’s Voice: A New Way of Thinking, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2009, pp. 64-82.

[17] Ibid.73.

[18] Gupta, Smita (2015), “Parliament puts seal of approval on LBA”, The Hindu, Delhi, 8 May 2015.

[19] Bose, Sahana (2014), “Illegal migration in the Indian Sunderbans”, Forced Migration Review: Crisis, p. 22.

[20] Ibid.22.


Prashant Kumar Sharma is a PhD Research Scholar at the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Courtesy: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF)Brussels, Belgium  on 1 June 2017.



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