Why Bengaluru doesn't need NRC

“How many villages might Bangalore have swallowed?" A farmer activist once conferred a demonic quality to the spatial sprawl of Bengaluru, a city with a population of 4.1 lakh in 1941, which rose to 12 lakh in 1961, and stood at 85 lakh in 2011. The migrant movements at the heart of this expansion have now attained newfound significance due to persistent and vociferous calls for a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Karnataka over the past few months.

Last week, Karnataka’s home minister Basavaraj Bommai weighed in. “We (the government) have started the preliminary exercise to prepare the ground to introduce NRC in Karnataka by collecting necessary information (about illegal immigrants). After this, we’ll discuss it with Union home minister Amit Shah and take a final call in a week or two," he said.

The move is expected to particularly target Bangladeshis, a community which is singled out for paranoid distrust. But where exactly do Bengaluru’s migrants come from? What might be the driving forces? And what are the political issues emerging out of the changing demographic composition of the city? Many of these questions can be reasonably answered with the help of available Census data on migration that was originally collected in February 2011 and released only recently after a long delay.

What the data reveals is that the absolute headcount of a community or nationality doesn’t matter as much as the perceived visibility of that particular community (the eight North-Eastern states combined, for example, accounted for just 24,000 Bengaluru residents, but they mostly work in highly visible sectors like hospitality). It also shows that the number of international immigrants in the silicon city was a mere 44,000, with roughly half of them originating from a country in Asia. And the number of people of Bangladeshi origin (includes legal residents) in the entire state of Karnataka in February 2011 was 4,420 (0.00007% of the state’s population).

Though these figures are self-reported, they gain additional validity due to the fact that two different censuses threw up similar numbers (the Bangladeshi origin headcount in 2001 was 4,400). The 2011 figures were also collected under the watch of a previous BS Yediyurappa government and released, in 2019, by a BJP-led central government.

However, these hard facts have completely evaded the din of Karnataka’s politics, with the number of alleged “illegal" Bangladeshis swinging wildly from anywhere between 200 and 40,000. Plans are also afoot to set up two new detention centers. 

 What these newly resurgent calls for NRC in a state which has no international borders – and with a capital that has relatively few foreigners – captures is the rising anxiety about migration. Census data shows that roughly 15% of the city’s workforce is made up of migrants, and rising. Most of the new entrants are Hindi or Odia speakers, not necessarily Bangladeshi. But resentment against “outsiders" is a catch-all sentiment that can, at times, bypass logic.

The 2011 census data, for example, offers an empirical grasp on the migration effects that are already visible in the local landscape of the city: small restaurants which serve North Karnataka cuisine in Bengaluru (due to rising intra-state migration); the service staff in apartments, restaurants, and pubs tend to be from Odisha, West Bengal and the North East; and, most private security guards don’t tend to speak Kannada.

Known for its tolerance towards migrants and settlers, Bengaluru has also, parallelly, witnessed tensions around the threat of cultural engulfment and the loss of the linguistic primacy of Kannada. This latent perception of cultural disempowerment will now need to reckon with the politics of identity engendered by the central government’s plans to prepare an NRC – which recently put 19 lakh people in Assam in a legal limbo – for the entire country. Thus, it is important to understand who makes up modern Bengaluru, because local and national political maneuvering has imbued the issue of migration and identity with a deeply charged political valence.

Who is a Bengalurean

There were nearly 44 lakh migrants in Bengaluru city in 2011, of whom more than 8 lakh were from within the greater Bengaluru district itself. Roughly 55% of the remaining 36 lakh came from other districts within Karnataka.

The neighbouring states (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Goa and Puducherry) accounted for 32% of these out-of-Bengaluru migrants. And, the largely Hindi-speaking states (Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) accounted for another 7.6%.

Karnataka’s inter-state migration story is largely a Bengaluru story, with roughly half of all inter-state migrates coming into the southern state gravitating towards the capital city. Interestingly, this affinity is higher for Hindi speaking states and the NE, i.e. 55 % and 63 % of them, respectively, who head towards Karnataka end up in the capital.

While migrants from neighbouring states continue to be the largest group among migrants from other states, there is a disproportionate perception of the size of migrant communities from northern and eastern states as their numbers are increasing faster than others. Among Karnataka’s neighbours, Tamil Nadu continues to be the largest contributor to the migrant pool in Bengaluru. However, the states of Odisha, Bihar and UP, in that order, have seen a dramatic increase in their contribution to the pool of migrants. 87 % of all Odia migrants came in just the last census decade (2001-11). The corresponding figures for UP and Bihar were 79 and 81 percent.

The changing patterns of migration would have only picked up further momentum since 2011 due to the booming construction sector in the city and the growing literacy levels and agrarian distress in the economically stagnant northern and eastern states. Surprisingly, a large-sized state like Madhya Pradesh does not figure much in Bengaluru’s migrant story, probably owing to it being a land surplus state with several industries to absorb local labour.

Contrary to the widespread impression, the 2011 Census puts the number of the NE migrants in Bengaluru at 24,000. The year following the capture of this data, i.e., in August 2012, more than 30,000 of them were reported to have fled the city after rumours of attacks on people from the region. At that time, most newspapers noted that there were 250,000 people from the NE in Bengaluru! The inflated sense of their demographic presence probably owes to their high visibility in the hospitality sector: restaurants, beauty and hair salons, and hotels.

NE migrants also dominate in another visible category of city resident: students. A sixth of all the NE migrants came into the city for education, compared to less than 6 % of educational migrants from Hindi-speaking states and nearly 2.5 % from neighbouring states. Inner variation among the Hindi-speaking migrants is noteworthy: only 2 % of Rajasthani migrants came for education, whereas nearly 10 % Biharis in the city were educational migrants. Hopefully, both the city and the migrant communities gain from these education-related encounters.

However, India’s peculiar problem of gendered access to education as well as work leaves a mark on the migrant trail too. The fast-growing communities of migrants from Odisha and Bihar, for example, had a sex ratio of 434 and 496, respectively, which is lower than the NE migrant’s sex ratio of 534. A probable explanation for the higher sex ratio among the NE migrants is that many of them are engaged in the hospitality sector where women workers predominate, whereas, Bihari and Odia migrants are more likely to find work in construction and allied activities.



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