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Policy Watch: Will work-permits solve migrant problem in North-East?

Monday, 25 August 2014 - 11:50am IST | Agency: dna

Over the next few years, one of the most vexatious problems that the Modi government will have to confront is that of migration and vote-banks, especially in the north-east of India. The problem is both economic and political. It is also related to livelihood. 

Take a look at some of the data related to Bangladesh, India's neighbour to its east and north-east. And it is then that you realise that numbers tell their own story, as in other analyses. They tell you why the problem of immigration from Bangladesh just cannot be wished away. No amount of barbed-wire-fencing or even shoot-at-sight patrolling will prevent Bangladeshis from coming over into India.

At 1,033 people per square km (see table), Bangladesh has one of the most frightening densities of population in this part of the world. It is also poor. Compare this density with any of India's neighbours, and it becomes evident that Bangladesh is bound to become one of the biggest exporters of migrants to almost every other part of the world. India offers the easiest opportunity. Nationals of both countries have the same cultural roots, and got separated only in 1947. They look like other Indians from that region.

Unfortunately, India had a political regime which promoted the creation of vote-banks, by promising resettled Muslims (most Bangladeshi migrants are Muslims) protection. As a humanitarian gesture that would be worth applauding. But when this protection (along with bogus ration cards and other documentation) comes in exchange for votes, it becomes unscrupulous vote-bank creation. Researchers from data collation organisations like the Delhi-based CESR confirm the surge in such documentation-backed-migrants.

The Bangladesh war saw the first major influx of refugees. Then came the (orchestrated) massacre of migrants at Nellie in 1983 – when 3,300 migrants (mostly women and children) were butchered in their sleep. That, in turn, introduced the most obnoxious vote-bank protection and promotion practices.

Now you have a large population of migrants that has swamped the locals, and threatens to change the demographic profile of many of the north-eastern states. Most migrants are now armed with documents to show that they are citizens of India. Yet everyone knows that they have 'purchased' their papers through promises of casting votes in favour of their protectors. That is what happens with slums as well in other urban centres.

There's buzz of economic activity in slums too

The emerging pattern in slum demographics

So what should the present government do? It cannot just turn them away at the point of a bayonet. Nor is it certain if Bangladesh will accept them. A porous riverine and jungle border makes policing this border much more difficult. That will be Modi's biggest challenge, and even opportunity. His government will need to identify migrants, both for political, social and economic reasons. Expect the census department to start vigorous checking of documents for more than one generation to confirm nationality, and clearly mark out those who are migrants.

The next will be to give them some kind of work-permits so that migrants can work in India, but cannot own land or vote. After all, migrants tend to be the most hardworking people, anywhere in the world. This is true of Bangladeshi migrants as well. Thus, migrants do generate wealth for India, in the same way Indian migrants generate wealth in countries that they work in.

Work permits would thus benefit migrants, and India. It would address the issue of new migrants as well who come across the border during floods, and return when the waters recede.

Such moves will go a long way in reducing the disaffection among traditional local populations in those regions. Flexible and humanitarian work-permits would also contribute to the well-being of people on both sides of the border. It is quite possible that the government may seek to link eventual citizenship with dispersed resettlement of such migrants from the northeast to some other states. The dispersal would reduce their numbers in any one state, and stanch the rise of xenophobia that is an inevitable outcome of demographic distortions.

It will help minimise the possibility of demographic tinkering and also prevent the creation of vote-banks elsewhere.

But this will not be possible till the rest of Indian also gets identify papers. This means that the problem of cross verification of identities and nationalities could become more rigorous, even for those who have already been given papers.

Doing all this will be painful. But it is a price India will have to pay for almost seven decades of neglect and vote-bank creation.

[Correction: Srinivas Kasulla, mentioned in last week's column, runs Green Elephant in India which is an associate of Green Elephant, Germany.]

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