Looking beyond the land boundary deal

| | in Oped

Narendra Modi has done well on the land deal with Bangladesh. But he has ignored the issue of illegal migration. The need is for infiltration-proof borders

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Bangladesh last weekend, he was greeted by the high and mighty of that nation. His Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina and all her senior Cabinet Ministers queued up to greet him. For Mr Modi, who, by now must have got used to getting on and off the aircraft and being greeted by world leaders, this was the chance to take forward, a historic relationship that had been facing blockades for the past four decades.

India’s association with Bangladesh is a classic case of a faulty and flawed foreign policy. So, it won’t be incorrect to say that Bangladesh owes its existence to India. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister and father of Ms Hasina, expressed his gratitude towards former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and said that the best friends of his people are the people of India. He was referring to India’s role in the liberation of Bangladesh.

But, somehow, we have not been able to develop sweet relations with Bangladesh due to certain long unresolved issues. While Bangladesh ratified the land deal in 1974 itself, the Indian Parliament ratified it only recently. The conclusion of the land boundary agreement will lead to the transfer of 51 enclaves to India and 111 enclaves to Bangladesh, with the residents of these enclaves getting a provision to switch and become citizens of either country.

A porous border gives ample opportunities to the Bangladeshi citizens to cross over to India and mix up with the local villagers. Despite a strict vigil by the Border Security Force, a considerable number of Bangladeshis manage to cross the border with the help of agents.

Data published by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2012 showed that 16,530 Bangladeshi residents overstayed in India after the expiry of their permit. These are just the official numbers that highlight the number of Bangladeshis travelling with valid travel documents. The illegal number is expected to be at least one crore.

However, it is the North-Eastern States and West Bengal that has been bearing the brunt of this issue ever since Bangladesh came into existence. Though close to 85,000 BSF troops are stationed at the India-Bangladesh border, a highly difficult terrain gives enough opportunities to the agents on both the sides, to run their business. Lack of job opportunities in Bangladesh is also forcing a number of young girls to take up flesh trade in India. Brothels in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai are always on the lookout for young girls coming from across the border.

Ichamati river divides India and Bangladesh with an imaginary border in the middle of the river, which is guarded by the BSF. A number of brick kilns have come up by the side of the river, owing to the highly fertile soil which supports brick-making. Employment opportunities in these kilns attract illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in large numbers. According to the BSF, patrolling of the river is usually done by hired boats. A few speeding boats and three floating border outposts are the only supporting equipments that the BSF has at its disposal to control the thousands of immigrants looking to cross the border to enter India. Beefing up BSF’s resources, rather than long talks, should be the first step towards arriving at a solution.

Mr Modi’s assumption that the exchange of enclaves will strengthen the borders and stop illegal immigration has a number of flaws. First, most of the illegal immigrants aren’t the citizens of these enclaves.

Second, India and Bangladesh share a 4,096 km long border, which runs through complex terrains including hills, forests, rivers and plains. In such a situation, infiltration-proof borders would need much more attention than the land swapping deal. Sealing of borders isn’t the ideal solution to this decade-old problem.

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