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]