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]

Risk of youth bulge unrest in India

The inaugural piece of my new fortnightly monthly column in DNA

Yesterday, I wrote about how to spot the next revolution. Demographics was one indicator. Specifically the existence of a youth bulge (young people constituting a large fraction of the total population) has been found to be correlated with high levels of unrest and violence.

“What about India?” many asked. At 26, the median Indian is not only older than the median Middle Eastern Arab, but will cross 31 by the year 2026. Rising opportunities, growing incomes, a hopeful mindset, democracy and freedom of expression mean that the chances of mass unrest are slim.

But it’s important not to be caught up with the good news in the big picture, for the macro data masks the variation at the micro level. In the first installment of my new fortnightly column in DNA, I argue that the data are serious enough for us to consider youth bulge violence as a long-term risk to national security, and that the time to take mitigatory steps is now.

The dark side of the demographic dividend: So demographics might partly explain why the countries of the Middle East are unstable, but why should it concern us? Well, because the youth bulge phenomenon might put at serious risk India’s ability to benefit from the celebrated “demographic dividend”. If reasonably healthy and reasonably educated young people do not find enough opportunities then India has an abundance of grievances available to agitate them. While the 15-24 population of India as a whole will peak this year and then decline over the next decade, there are many parts of the country where the age structure indicates the risk of youth bulge unrest.

…the data are sufficient enough for us to regard youth bulge violence as a long-term risk to national security. Going by the National Commission on Population’s projections to the year 2026, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi will experience a net increase in young people. The numbers in the 15-24 age group will grow in Bihar, Assam, Haryana, Uttaranchal, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Gujarat. States that cannot both reduce grievances and create enough opportunities are likely to get into trouble. [DNA]

You should also look at Dilip Rao’s insightful post at Law and Other Things that I cite in my article.

How to spot the next revolution

Demographics, mobile phone penetration and the army’s disposition

Earlier this month, after the protests in Tunisia caused the reigning despot to fly to Saudi Arabia, this blogger said that the phenomenon is unlikely to spread. In the event this was proven wrong by Egypt. Bear this in mind as you read the rest of this post.

How can we tell which country is susceptible to political transformation brought about by “people power”? Here’s a rough guide:

First, look at demographics. Scholars such as Samuel Huntington, Jack Goldstone, Gunnar Heinsohn and Henrik Urdal argue that if there are a large number of young, healthy, educated and dissatisfied men, the stage is set for unrest. Of these Mr Heinsohn goes the furthest, predicting that when the population of 15 to 29-year-olds crosses 30 percent of the overall population, then, regardless of the cause, violence will ensue. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Arab North Africa, the mainland Arabia and Pakistan meet this criterion. Turkey and Iran are exceptions. [Related link: The New Security Beat blog has a good discussion on this]

Second, look at mobile telephone and internet penetration. Mobilising large numbers of people in short periods of time requires ubiquitous access to mobile phones and the internet. This is important because state machinery can pre-empt large protests if they have enough time to identify, intimidate or imprison the field organisers. That is why Twitter (and to an extent Facebook) beat SMS text messages, and why text messages beat phone calls and pamphlets. A tweet is likely to reach any given fraction of the population orders of magnitude faster than a SMS text message. Most importantly, they work in combination—a tweet can be relayed on SMS, and vice versa.

(In fact, the failure to account for this factor might be one reason why I underestimated the likelihood Egypt will stir. Both Hosni Mubarak and I might have been stumped by the speed of the mobilisation.)

While technology allows faster mobilisation, it does not create leadership or an alternative political vision. It is not surprising that some of the recent “leaderless” uprisings do not have a clear idea of “what next?” beyond the toppling of the current regime. What this means is that organised political groups—like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—can wait for the uprising to oust the incumbent, even let a transition government operate for a while, before stepping in to take over. Not unlike what the Pakistani military-jihadi complex did following the ouster of General Musharraf.

Third, when it comes to the crunch, look at whether the security forces—specifically the army—will fire upon their own people. This is both a yes/no question, as well as a question of extent.

In countries with compulsory military service, it is less likely that the army will fire on its own people. In countries where the armed forces are insulated from the general public—culturally, socio-economically or ideologically—then it is more likely that the army will not have such compunctions. That is why Iran has a special revolutionary guard that is distinct from the army. This is also why the Pakistani army engages in massive domestic skulduggery, because its leaders do not want to be in a situation where they have to fire at Pakistanis from the Punjabi heartland.

Worked Examples

Tunisia
Demographics: median age 29, (borderline) check.
Mobile phone penetration 95.3%, check. Internet 4.5% no check.
Army: Didn’t fire

Egypt
Demographics: median age 24, check.
Mobile phone penetration 77%, check. Internet 21.1% no check.
Army: ?

The rest is left as an exercise for the interested reader.

Leadership by absence

L K Advani’s ultimate challenge

You don’t need to read L K Advani’s autobiography to know that he is the tallest leader in active politics today. You don’t even need to note the thickness and weight of the bestselling My Country, My Life to get that point. There is no doubt that he is a great leader.

But there is also no doubt that at eighty, he is too old to lead India into the twenty-first century.

It is not about Mr Advani’s mental and physical fitness. It’s about representation. The median age of India is around 25. By 2025, the median Indian will only be 30. At a time when technology, globalisation, social mobility and economic development are reducing the generation gap to a handful of years, Mr Advani could well be from another country.

All this is not to say that Mr Advani shouldn’t be the BJP’s next prime ministerial candidate. He probably should, especially if that party thinks he could lead it back into power. Rather, it is about what he should do now, and if the BJP were to return to power, what he should do when he ascends to the prime-ministership. The single most important task for Mr Advani is also the hardest one in Indian politics: succession planning. For man who has dedicated his adult life for the nation, the ultimate challenge is to ensure that the nation has good, stable leadership after is no longer on the political stage. As both an ardent nationalist and an astute politician, Mr Advani should know that.