The migration problem unpacked

Without a pragmatic approach to migration, instability will only increase.

The surge in communal clashes in parts of Assam—between Bodos and Muslim migrants—earlier this month was serious enough to require the army to be called out to subdue the violence. Such violence is a clear indicator of failure of governance at various levels. Good intelligence, sensitive local governance and astute political tactics should have kicked in long before violence escalated to riot levels. This didn’t happen. It is important to ask why it didn’t happen and hold the state government to account.

That shouldn’t blind us to the big underlying problem—an inability to evolve a workable policy towards migrations into India’s north-eastern region from the regions around it. This problem is more than a century old. The British couldn’t deal with it satisfactorily and ended up sowing the seeds of discord that exist to this day. The Indian republic’s record is no better. As Sanjoy Hazarika points out in his Strangers of the Mist (or Sudeep Chakravarti in a recent Mint article), while the issue of migration (of which illegal immigration from Bangladesh is an important subset) has been exploited politically, there has been no serious attempt to evolve a national policy response.

Yes, it requires a national policy response, for two reasons. First, while border fencing and patrolling can work to some extent, migration can be managed by reducing people’s incentive to migrate. People move in search of greener pastures. Second, the heart of the problem is not the flow of migrants, but their concentration in some areas. 10,000 Bengali-speaking Muslim people from Bangladesh arriving in India is not as much a problem as the same people settling in one village in Assam. [See this editorial in the Assam Sentinel]

Therefore it’s important for Bangladeshi economy to grow at a rate that will reduce incentives for Bangladeshis to want to migrate to India. It is in India’s interests to ease demographic pressure by supporting Bangladesh’s development. Proximity geopolitics is not easy. One of two mainstream Bangladeshi political parties is plainly hostile towards India. Even so, it is meaningless to think India can address the problems of illegal immigration if Bangladesh fails to keep pace with India’s own development.

More importantly, as this blogger has argued elsewhere, the focus of India’s national approach to migration must be to manage the flows in a manner that does not undermine the already weak social capital across the country, and especially in ‘remote’ regions. A work permit system that allows Bangladeshis and others to legally work in India and travel back to their homeland is necessary. This might not be a popular idea—but it is a better alternative to both pretending that there are no illegal immigrants and to hyperventilating that there are too many of them. Issuing work permits and allowing state and local governments to assign limits on the number of work permit holders in their communities will be an improvement on the status quo.

What about the politics, you ask? There is something in the idea for either side of the political spectrum. The Congress party’s fortunes in Assam will brighten once the illegal migration issue is settled. It can claim to have protected the rights of Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims who no longer face the risk of harassment. The BJP, for its part, can credibly call for the repatriation of all illegal immigrants.

Work permits for Bangladeshis offers absolute gains for most political parties. Their own calculations, however, are on the basis of relative gains — “does it benefit our party more than the other party.” Both great leaders and good politicians would smell a political opportunity here. We do have some of the latter.[How to fix illegal Bangladeshi immigration]

By invitation: Peace comes to Assam?

Betweeen Sheikh Hasina’s gift and the need to neutralise the recalcitrant faction in Myanmar

by Bibhu Prasad Routray

There is expected hype in Assam regarding the proposed 10 February round of talks between New Delhi and a faction of the militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). At the same time, however, there is a terrible sense of unease with the actual delivery capacities of the negotiation process to what is being euphorically described as the ‘outbreak of peace in Assam’.

Cadre strength of ULFA, born in 1979, has continuously declined since the December 2003 offensive by Bhutan, where the outfit had maintained sizeable presence. The outfit lost half of its 1500 cadres and several important leaders to arrests, disappearances during and subsequent to the month-long military maneuvers. In 2008, two potent companies of ULFA’s main fighting arm, the 28th battalion based in Myanmar, came overground complaining of the divide between the ULFA top ranks and the field based cadres. Even though rest of the cadres and leaders, mostly based in the safe houses in Bangladesh, sat tight and vowed to continue with their three-decade long armed struggle, arrests of several of its top leaders in Dhaka provided the turning point.

By all means, the present development is a gift from the government in Dhaka. Since she came to power, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has delivered consistently on her promises of not allowing the territory of Bangladesh to be used for anti-India activities. Even in the face of little reciprocation from the Indian side, Bangladesh has arrested and handed over several ULFA top leaders—including the outfit’s chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Barua and ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury—to India. It is this gesture, and certainly not the military operations by the army, para-military and police combine in Assam, that has broken the back of the outfit and led to the creation of a sizeable section of pro-talks leaders within the outfit.

A lot has been commented upon ULFA now agreeing to an unconditional round of talks with the government by giving up its key demand of sovereignty for Assam. However, such a stance has not emerged out of a change of heart among the pro-talk ULFA leaders, but rather is a compulsion imposed by the possibility of their prolonged incarceration. This is Mr Rajkhowa’s second hobnobbing with the peace process. In the early 1990s, he disappeared after a round of talks in New Delhi. This time, however, he and his accomplices have nowhere to run to. At the same time, a façade of negotiations and its associated paraphernalia— frequent trips to New Delhi, money bags, furnished office space in the Assam capital—is much more than the elderly ULFA leaders can bargain for.

In a politically charged and divided Assam, ahead of the May 2011 elections to the state Legislative Assembly, the initiation of talks with the ULFA will add to the list of ‘achievements’ by the incumbent Congress party and would possibly translate into popular support it badly needs while being pitted against a united opposition. To facilitate Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s return to power for the third successive time, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) appears amenable to contradict its own stand of not negotiating with factions of militant groups.

Paresh Barua, ULFA’s commander-in-chief, is believed to be in Myanmar leading a gang of 100 odd cadres. He remains opposed to the talks and continues to issue periodic statements to the media vowing reprisal attacks. Mr Barua is accompanied by a number of senior leaders like Jiban Moran and Bijoy Chinese and retains the ability to create nuisance. It is the neutralisation of this group and not the present peace talks, which would hold key to peace in Assam in times to come.

Bibhu Prasad Routray, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, is currently a visiting research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Pax Indica: Work permits for Bangladeshi migrants

Illegal immigration can only be tackled by allowing legal migration

In an email exchange last week, Sanjoy Hazarika, author of one of the best books on India’s North East, told me that he has been advocating work permits for the last two decades. The proposal needs a serious consideration now.

[The] blunt, impractical and half-heartedly implemented measures we have used to address the problem have only worsened it. Attempts to force them to go back have created an illicit political protection racket that has undermined national security. Fencing is in progress, but it is impossible to erect an impenetrable barrier along the entire India-Bangladesh border. Over the years, many border officials and security personnel have become mixed up in organised networks smuggling everything from cough syrup to human beings. Indian and Bangladeshi border guards sometimes even exchange fire, indicating policy failure at so many levels. Amid all this, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants make their way into India each year.

We need a new approach. India should consider establishing a system of work permits to allow Bangladeshis to work in India, legally.

It is practically impossible to fight demographic pressure, not least given the geography of India’s North East. It is, however, possible to ensure that the flow of immigrants does not concentrate in Assam or other states adjoining Bangladesh. The real political problem is not so much the inflow, but the accumulation of illegal immigrants in one state. If work permits are subject to state-wise quotas, then it is possible to distribute the flow across Indian states. This will allow migrant workers to work in states that need them, and prevent them from crowding in certain states.

Work permits with state-wise quotas can thus address Assam’s genuine and longstanding concerns — the state can cap the number of Bangladeshi migrants it will accept. India’s national security concerns become more manageable by bringing the migration out into the open. Obviously, Bangladesh stands to benefit too, not least the immigrant who need not live a often fearful life in the twilight zone. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

This column benefits from the discussions I had with participants and friends at Economic Freedom Network Asia’s conference on international migration in Jakarta last week.