The surge in communal violence in parts of Assam should cause us to ask: just why has the issue of Bangladeshi migrants become a problem in India? The ready answer is that it is a problem because much of the migration is illegal. True, the illegality of it drives the related economy underground, placing it in the hands of organised criminals, corrupt officials and unscrupulous politicians who can exploit the vote banks it creates. It also deprives the central and state governments of sources of revenue they would have enjoyed had migrant economy been above-ground.
This still doesn’t answer the question we started off asking: why is it such a problem that we have made laws prohibiting it?
Consider this thought experiment. Let’s say 20,000 more low-skilled, Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants enter India. In the first instance, imagine all of them cross the border and concentrate in a single district in one of our states. If this happens, ethnic, religious, linguistic and other divides are likely to be exacerbated to levels that can threaten political and social stability. We end up with a problem.
Now imagine, instead, that the same 20,000 Bangladeshi immigrants are spread across the country, working as farm labourers in rural Tamil Nadu, construction workers in Maharashtra or as domestic help in our growing number of cities. They are less likely to disturb the balance of local societies and, therefore, constitute a much smaller, more manageable “problem”.
What we can conclude from this is that what matters more is the concentration of migrants in a particular region than their flow. India’s geography and population are large enough, and its culture and polity strong enough to be able to handle migrants even in millions. However, different parts of India have evolved social equilibria based on vastly different population compositions, which migration can destabilise. Locals do get resentful of new migrants, and the challenge of politics and policy is to acknowledge and address the resentment as a legitimate – if unseemly – sentiment.
Indeed, local communities are best placed to decide how many migrants they want in their midst. A border district in the north east might not want any, but a labour-starved district in the south might well want several thousands. What is a problem in Kokrajhar district of Assam might not be one in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. Why not allow districts and states to set their own migrant worker quotas?
A national system of work permits allowing Bangladeshis to be legally employed in India is more than a decade overdue. Astute analysts like Sanjoy Hazarika have made the case for it since the 1990s. In 2001, a group of ministers (GoM) on national security reforms in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, under the chairmanship of L K Advani, had recommended a work permit system “to curb illegal migration and to begin this with Bangladesh and Myanmar nationals”. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, unfortunately, had other priorities. While it has been “considering the recommendations” of the GoM, it has not even attempted to give a political impetus to the proposal.
The work permit proposal has run into rough weather because of, among other things, strong opposition by political parties in the north east, who fear the influx of additional migrants will threaten social equilibrium. To the extent that their opposition is on such genuine grounds, allowing states and districts the absolute discretion to set work permit quotas can be persuasive. Also, because the corollary to permitting legal migrants is cracking down hard on illegal immigration, there’s something in there for most political parties.
With both Bangladesh and India moving towards providing robust national identification documents to their citizens, implementing a work permit system will only become easier.
According to Bibek Debroy, work permits can transform the nature of migration by encouraging high-skilled migrants and allowing low-skilled seasonal migrants a pathway to return to Bangladesh. “With porous borders, there is no way migration can be checked,” Debroy argues, “and this will be accentuated with environmental refugees. At best, one can ensure illegal migration becomes legal, instead of wishing the problem away.”
Work permits can do better than pretending that border fencing and patrolling are keeping the migrants out. However, like these measures, work permits can only be effective to an extent. Migration is ultimately managed by reducing people’s incentive to migrate. People move in search of greener pastures. The incentive to cross the border will diminish to the extent the Bangladeshi economy enjoys robust growth and improves the life chances of its citizens.
It is in India’s interests, therefore, to ease demographic pressure on its border states by supporting Bangladesh’s development. Given the geopolitics of proximity, this is not easy. While the current government in Dhaka has gone out of its way to rebuild relations with India, the principal opposition party continues to be plainly hostile towards India. Even so, it is absurd to presume that India’s policy responses to migration can be effective if Bangladesh fails to keep pace with our own development.
The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution