It is said that Sylhet, the northern metropolitan city, is the London of Bangladesh. Nearly 150 people from my native Bangladeshi village of Kewali Para are now proud British citizens. The majority of them living in London’s inner boroughs, Tower Hamlets in particular, have nice but empty houses and own almost half of arable but abandoned land in the village.
Although they experience a range of socio-economic problems in their everyday life in London, they play a pivotal role in the development of the village they left behind, apart from supporting their relatives. When I met the Member of Parliament (MP) for this constituency during his recent London visit and requested him for the completion of an important road, he said it will be built in the next few months with the help of “Londonis” (a popular term for Bangladeshi British).
The same applies to every British of Bangladeshi origin, almost 600,000, according to the 2015 census. Among them, 95 percent come from one particular region: Sylhet. A large number migrated to the United Kingdom (UK) during the 1950s and over a period of say 70 years they have transformed their land of origin, too.
British Bangladeshis have also made their mark in their new home: the UK. As professionals, diplomats and MPs they make significant contributions to this country. The success story of Bangladeshi restaurants (mainly Sylheti) is well known. It adds 4.5 billion pounds yearly to the British economy and employs 150,000 people. Meghan Markle, the American-born wife of Prince Harry, needs to know that the Chicken Tikka Masala is Britain’s national dish to pass the British citizenship test.
The London-Sylhet connection is historically deep. Brick Lane is a mini Sylhet and many things in Sylhet are reminiscent of London. British schools have included the Sylheti language as a separate subject.
However, the fourth-generation of British-Bangladeshis are detached from the roots of their grandparents. Compared to the first-generation, who left their loved ones behind, the new generation feel Britain is their home. The consequence of this detachment concerns many.
A 2009 study by the University of Surrey found that the financial relationship between Londoni families and those in Bangladesh was “rapidly changing”. “In 1995 20 percent of the Bangladeshi families in east London were sending money to Bangladesh whereas in the 60s and 70s, 85 percent were remitting their savings.” Today the proportion may be even smaller than 10 percent.
During the 1990s, there was a trend of marriages between Londonis and native-born Bangladeshis. Young men and women would visit Bangladesh to get married. However, this generation is more likely to get married in the UK within the British culture.
This change of heart is apparently an unavoidable reality. For a large number of families in Britain the rising cost of living severely constrains any regular financial commitment towards their relatives back home. The family reunion process has resulted in conflicts over land and property between members of a household divided by migration. Occupying Londonis’ land, houses and businesses is a worrying trend in Sylhet. Complaints piled up when Abdul Momen, Bangladesh Foreign Minister, also a Sylheti, visited London recently.
“Is London getting poorer?” asked one of my nephews during a recent telephone conversation. When I enquired why, he replied that most of the Londonis he knows talk about selling their Bangladeshi assets these days. 10 or 20 years back the opposite was the case, as my nephew recalled.
Coming back to the point of remittance, it is true that most of the money has been spent on buying land and constructing luxurious mansions even in a rural landscape. As Ayub Korom Ali, a former Labour Party councillor in the London borough of Newham, observes, big Londoni houses in the area of Uposhohar are standing vacant and the upper floors of many shopping centres in Sylhet remain unoccupied.
Nevertheless, the flow of remittances (a billion dollars each year) is not only crucial for Bangladesh’s economy, but for many families in Sylhet it is also their lifeline. Sylhet was known to be one of the richest cities in Bangaldesh after Dhaka, thanks to the remittances sent back home by the Londonis. But this prosperity may not be sustainable in the long run.
He also highlights, “There are few large industries and agricultural production is low compared to other districts. Where farmers in other regions grow three crops a year, most of Sylhet produces only one.”
Thereby, Sylhet and many other townships in the region—Maulvibazar, Beani Bazar, Biswanath, and Goalabazar—will become vulnerable when the London connection disappears and remittances dry up. Nearby upazila of Jagannathpur and Chhatak in Sunamganj district, enjoying the same London connected lifestyle, will also feel the pain.
Policy makers need to think about this important issue urgently. Setting up a proposed Special Economic Zone in Sylhet (rich in natural resources like gas, stone and minerals) can not only attract British multinational corporations, but also transform the economic landscape of the region. Moreover, investing in Sylhet can open up trade potential for British businesses with neighbouring India.
Perhaps keeping the above in mind, the British High Commissioner in Bangladesh was considering exploring the London-Sylhet connection and establish a long-term commercial relation with Sylhet, when he said, “British Bangladeshis are at the forefront of everything we do.”
With a sustained eight percent growth rate, Bangladesh (one among Next-9, after BRIC—Brazil, Russia, India, China, according to American Investment Bank Goldman Sachs) is an attractive investment destination. And Britain, being the largest development partner, second biggest foreign direct investor and third highest export destination for Bangladesh, is a country of the highest importance.
Finally, the fourth generation of highly educated and entrepreneurial British-Bangladeshis can transform the remittance-dependent economic relationship into an investment driven win-win bond with the place from which they originated. Like one of my brothers-in-law, a born-and-brought up Sylheti-British, recently started a Manchester-based (UK) perfume manufacturing company collecting raw materials from Sylhet. But the host must ensure the appropriate environment.
Ismail Ali works for Catholic Agency for Overseas
Development, an England based organisation.