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]

The Economist can’t decide where Sikkim belongs?

Is there a method to its cartographical inconsistency?

In defence of its editorial policy on the maps it publishes alongside its articles, in September 2007 the Economist wrote “we use maps not to portray the world as it ought to be, or even as we would like it to be, but as it is.” Reassuring readers that it bore no malice about its maps of Jammu & Kashmir, it wrote “in using “the line of control” that divides Kashmir in the absence of an agreed international frontier we are merely noting the status quo, not endorsing it.”

So let’s look at its maps of the India-China border.

The most informative of the maps of the border regions came in May 1999 (although giving India and China the same colour allows a degree of chickening out, as Sikkim is both marked out but not coloured as being disputed)

Courtesy: The Economist

Maps from June and July 2003 are consistent with the Economist’s own stated policy: they note the status quo.

Courtesy: The EconomistCourtesy: The Economist

Its special annual publication, the World in 2007, published in late 2006, reported that “China now recognises the Himalayan state of Sikkim as India’s territory”. The accompanying map reflected this position.

And now in March 2008, the we find a change in the ‘status quo’: the Indian state of Sikkim has been painted in Chinese colours.

Courtesy: The Economist

Now unless the Economist knows something about the status quo that it is not letting on, it has clearly run foul of its own policy. If there is no cartographical conspiracy here, then is the Economist—unconsciously or otherwise—being a little too eager to please Beijing?